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Science & Tech

Senior engineering project heads to world finals

“SmarTrash” is a contender at CSIDC”

From left, Yanin Ophir (ENG'06), Joseph D'Errico (ENG'06), Andrew Hagedorn (ENG'06), faculty mentor professor Mike Ruane, and Vyas Venkataraman (ENG'06), have designed trash cans that tell employees when they need to be emptied and when they don't. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Imagine “smart” trash cans in public parks that tell employees when they need to be emptied — and when they don’t. The undergraduates in the Boston University College of Engineering who imagined and prototyped this concept have just made the finals of the 7th annual Computer Society International Design Competition (CSIDC).

Students Yaniv Ophir, Joseph D’Errico, Andrew Hagedorn and Vyas Venkataraman will compete against teams from China, Jordan, India, Poland and Romania. Only two other teams from the U.S. will be at the finals on July 2, in Washington D.C.

The competition is aimed at encouraging computer-based answers to real-world problems through innovation.

The team, also known as Team X, surveyed park authorities nationwide to determine potential interest in a “smart” trash can that could tell park managers whether or not it needs to be emptied. They learned that the annual cost of trash collection in a typical public park ranges well into six figures and that interest in their idea was high.

The students devised SmarTrash, a system that rigs a trash can lid with a planar sensor, an infrared depth sensor and a small wireless device, or mote, which communicates with a base station through a mesh network. The whole system is solar powered.

“The trash cans talk to each other,” explained Ophir, and relay signals from can to can until they can be picked up by the base station, which could be housed on a pole or in a parking garage nearby — anywhere with a WiFi or Internet connection. A park the size of Boston Common has trash cans positioned about 100 feet apart, well within the mote’s 300-foot range.

Park managers could call up a Web page with a satellite photograph of the park superimposed with color-coded trash can icons indicating the position of each receptacle. The green cans don’t need emptying, but the yellow ones are nearly full, their contents within a set distance of the top. Red cans are overflowing. Employees could take the most efficient route tending to the cans, bypassing the ones that don’t need emptying. This would leave more time for other tasks, such as landscaping, which the students’ survey indicated is often performed by the same workers.

Authorities are already interested in what the technology promises. At Roeding Park, a 150-acre area in Fresno, Calif., the Parks Department spends $183,519 per year on trash removal. Southland Park in Lexington, Ky., said 100 locations cost $250,000 per year.

Toward the end of their final semester, TeamX accepted an invitation from New York City’s park authorities to visit their Fleet Show and discuss SmarTrash in all five boroughs. The team reported that the meetings went well and there was some interest from vendors.

 The SmarTrash units would cost a little over $100 each, a fraction of the cost of the typical park trash can. The team is seeking three patents for SmarTrash, which has already attracted interest among parks departments.