Wouldn't it be great if we had robotic garbage cans that could move around on their own and pick up litter? Well, engineers from the Interaction and Communications Design Lab at Japan's Toyohashi University of Technology are part-way there. Their bots, however, ask people to pick up the trash for them.

Known as social trash box robots (STBs), the little wheeled bins are equipped with a microprocessor, a video camera and a speaker, plus a pyroelectric infrared sensor, an infrared ray sensor, and a distance sensor.

Each robot starts by identifying public areas where people are present, by detecting their body heat with its pyroelectric sensor. Upon safely moving into that area with some help from its distance sensor, it then uses its camera in conjunction with an object recognition algorithm, to identify both pieces of trash and other STBs.

When it finds litter, it uses body movements and vocalizations to get the attention of nearby people, asking them to pick up the trash and drop it in its integrated bin. The infrared sensors at the top of that bin let the STB know if the litter has indeed been deposited.

In order to help its human assistants "sink a basket," so to speak, the robot is able to tip its flexible bin forward or backward, or twist it to either side. These movements are powered by three servo motors in the top part of the bot, while two other motors in its bottom section power the wheels.

While there aren't packs of the robots roaming the streets of Japan just yet, they have been tested with groups of children.

We came across the STBs at the recent International Robotics Exhibition in Tokyo, although the project has been in the works for the past few years. You can see some of the trash-conscious robots in action on YouTube.

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