Urban Rivers, the Company Creating a Robot to Clean the Chicago River

Trashbot, the robotic cleaning device that users can control remotely, may be extended to other cities if the project proves successful

05.07.2019 | by Reve Fisher
Photo by Urban Rivers
Photo by Urban Rivers

Urban Rivers, a Chicago-based non-profit organisation, has created a Trashbot that allows anyone, anywhere with an internet connection, to help clean the Chicago River through a fun, gamified experience.

“The can you see floating in the Chicago River…can travel thousands of miles to the Gulf of Mexico and into the ocean,” co-founder Nick Wesley told Smart Cities Dive. “It’s a missed opportunity if we’re not intercepting trash… before it reaches that destination. [Trashbot and the Wild Mile] fit into the whole system of how we engage river systems and urban environments to create unique spaces that use infrastructure as a canvas.”

The inspiration for Trashbot came after the non-profit successfully funded and launched the first phase of the Wild Mile, which consisted of a series of floating gardens meant to restore the natural wildlife habitat, providing shelter for animals, fish and plants. Although the gardens were successfully installed, employees noticed an abundance of trash was dispersed throughout the area. Originally, the workers tried to collect the garbage themselves by kayaking through the river with nets. However, it soon became obvious that greater efforts were needed to make a difference in the pollution in the Chicago River.

Urban Rivers designated a Trash Task Force to address the problem. As a result, an innovative idea was carried by its Robot Team—the Trashbot. The robotic cleaner is a 2.5 foot by 2.5 foot, remote-controlled device that gathers small pieces of garbage in the river to a location where it can be safely removed. Trashbot has a GPS tracking device, cameras and a tether to ensure that the device does not get vandalised or float away.

“This proved not only effective… but super entertaining,” the project’s Kickstarter explained. “We realised it would not be impossible to make this an interactive experience. We could link this up to our website and let anyone, anywhere, help clean up the trash in the Chicago River.”

Users can control the Trashbot remotely, playing an essential role in cleaning up the river. By logging into the website, anyone can take control of the robot for a few minutes and pick up garbage in its immediate vicinity.

“We’re at the stage where we have really fast bandwidth in most places,” co-founder Nick Wesley told Digital Trends. “The technology used for [building our robot] is derived from what you’d use for building a cheap drone. It’s also now possible to stream video with real low-latency. That perfect storm enables really interesting remote presence projects in environments just like the Chicago River. Taking advantage of this, letting people take control of a robot to clean up trash, makes for a really cool experience.”

If the programme proves successful, Urban Rivers hopes to increase the numbers of Trashbots in the Chicago River and extend the technology to other cities.

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