Multitasking garbage trucks scan streets for more than trash
Multitasking garbage trucks scan streets for more than trash
Sensors mounted on garbage trucks can detect air pollution, traffic congestion, potholes and more. (Credit: MIT Senseable City Lab)

Multitasking garbage trucks scan streets for more than trash

Many smart city projects rely on live or near-live data. It is typical for the data collection points to be situated in fixed locations – but that isn’t always the case. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, smart garbage trucks are collecting all manner of data that helps keep the city planners informed.

Multitasking garbage trucks

The idea of using garbage trucks to gather information came out of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, an initiative that is all about finding ways to better understand modern cities. This program, called City Scanner, takes the humble, single purpose garbage truck and turns it into a multitasking, information-gathering hub.

Usually, garbage trucks rumble round the city streets doing a simple job – providing and transporting collected trash. But there are five trucks in Cambridge, Massachusetts that can measure a number of variables including air pollution, traffic status and infrastructure decay. Examples of situations the system has identified include energy leaks in buildings and potholes that need to be filled.

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Self-sufficient city scanning

The sensing array that gathers and shares this information includes accelerometers, air quality sensors, infrared cameras and wireless signal monitors. A solar panel ensures the array is self-sufficient in terms of its energy needs.

Data is transmitted to Wi-Fi hotspots, but there’s no reason why in the future the connection can’t be via 4G.

For MIT, this is an early deployment of what could become a much larger and more significant approach to understanding and managing city infrastructure, and it represents something of a living experiment.

For example, finding out that the array’s thermal cameras could be affected by hot components in the garbage trucks such as exhaust pipes or emitted gases will have an impact on the next iteration of equipment.

The team is also working on ways to reduce the size of the kit, so that it might fit on other types of vehicle, such as school buses.

The array costs $1,000 per kit, but as Carlo Ratti, MIT’s Senseable City Lab Director, told, “This might seem a lot, but you should consider that with just a few sensors, you can scan an entire city regularly.”

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A myriad of uses

Sam Barker, an analyst at research company Juniper Research told Internet of Business, “The significance of these services lie in the vehicles’ mobility, and are principally valuable to monitoring traffic and road conditions.”

“When the number of vehicles with sensors reaches a critical point, the collected data can be used to implement smart city initiatives to control traffic with greater efficiency, based upon weather, time of day and time of year.”

But for MIT the remit is potentially much wider, according to Ratti: “We see the platform as a basis for engaging people and democratizing urban data.”

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