Can this ingenious trash collecting robot gamify litter removal?

A savvy group is hoping to turn trash collection into a multi-player video game.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

When the group Urban Rivers raised nearly $30K on Kickstarter to install a floating garden on the Chicago River in 2017, the aim was to bring a little more nature back to a major urban waterway.

A beautiful garden went in. Then the metropolis struck back in the form of floating garbage.

Carried along on the current, the city's waterborne refuse collected along the edge of the floating garden like styrofoam and plastic krill in a whale's vegetal baleen.

Manual collection efforts were difficult due to the volume and constancy of the garbage. So the group began thinking of higher tech solutions.

It alighted on a particular savvy idea: a remotely-operated trash collecting robot that can be controlled anywhere by anyone.

The idea of offering public access to a robot, by itself, is intriguing and likely to garner curiosity. But Urban Rivers is hoping that by gamifying the experience of collecting trash with an element of competition, it will entice do-gooders to continue coming back.


The technology behind the project seems straightforward.

The custom robot, which has a tractor loader on the front, is controlled by Wi-Fi after users log in via a website. The "players" remotely deposit the trash they collect at a collection point, where Urban Rivers team members regularly collect it.

Points are awarded to users based on how much trash they collect in a given time period.

The team is currently seeking $5000 in crowdfunding to improve on a prototype of the robot.

"We will build a home base trash station, install a high-power Wi-fi station, and modify the design to withstand all seasons," according to the group's Kickstarter page. "All additional funds will go towards further prototyping and experimentation."

The idea behind gamification, a trendy term in the self-improvement world thanks to apps like Habitica and Todoist, is that people are more easily motivated when rewards can be collected for completing tasks.

In the case of the trash collection robot, a simple record of previous "high scores" for garbage collection incentivizes "players" to collect more trash in hopes of unseating the leaders.

There are some risks to putting a small robot on a public waterway, including the possibility the device will be vandalized or stolen. Urban Rivers is hoping an embedded GPS tracker will help mitigate the possibility of the latter happening.

So far, vandalism of robots operating in public, such as security guard bots or small urban delivery vehicles, hasn't been a major problem, though the sample size is still small.

If the trash collecting robot is successful, Urban Rivers sees further applications of their premise in areas like wildlife monitoring.

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