They’re hanging bags of canine excrement in the trees. Little black parcels of poo swinging gently in the breeze. It is one of the more unlikely consequences of the pandemic: a plague of dog shit, with no obvious solution in sight. And it stinks.

The rise is down to the sheer number of potential pet owners that rushed to realize the dream of owning a dog while in lockdown. Such was the demand, the price of puppies in the UK more than doubled last year, with popular breeds selling for more than £3,000 a pup. And with such money came the thieves and fraudsters.

But even though we have passed the peak of the puppy spending spree, it is clear there will be lasting effects. Unpleasant ones. For when it comes to dog poo, supply follows demand. 

The reason people are bagging up their pets’ motions and hanging the offending items in trees and on bushes—something Scottish national newspaper the Daily Record has dubbed the “the hanging gardens of jobbylon”—is these new owners can’t be bothered to carry such deposits to the nearest dog poo bin. Oh, they’ll go to the trouble of bagging it, but carting it about? No thanks. So they hang it on hedgerows—a literal crappy Christmas tree—for the local authorities or other community-minded citizens to spot and do the dirty work for them. 

Other countries are reporting similar scatological issues. In Australia, park rangers in Melbourne have spoken about how they usually deal with “90 kilos of dog poo every three days or so. Now we’re doing that every two days if not more.”

Interestingly, dog poop wasn’t a problem in mid-19th-century London. Back then, dog mess was called “pure” because of its properties for purifying leather and was sought after by tanneries. To meet this demand, “pure” finders would roam the streets, collecting their product and selling it on. 

Now, however, it’s a health problem, an unsightly, smelly one. The estimated 9 million dogs in the UK each produce on average 340 grams of waste a day—that’s more than 3,000 tonnes in all. The 77 million dogs in the US industriously turn out 26,180 tonnes, more than the total weight of the Statue of Liberty, every 24 hours. “It’s full of viruses and bacteria,” Andy Coleman, who runs dogfoul.org, told The Guardian. “There’s no obvious solution at the moment.”

Excremental Growth

Robots and drones, however, could offer just the solution Coleman craves. Mark Cridge, mySociety CEO, which runs FixMyStreet, an app for easily mapping and reporting street problems to local councils across the UK, says that, according to their data, 2021 is “going to be a bumper year for dog poo.” He adds that evidence for waste resources is critical, “especially when councils are under a continuing amount of austerity and reduced budgets” so there is less money to deal with the problem. What’s more, poorer areas suffer more. “Dog fouling cross references with multiple indices of deprivation,” Cridge says.

Photograph: Getty Images

Could drones provide this evidence for waste resources, letting local authorities know where dog poo is being dumped? 

Ferdinand Wolf, creative director at DJI Europe, says it can. “Flight time has seen a big improvement in drone technology,” Wolf says. “From the original Phantom that maybe flew seven or eight minutes, now we have drones that easily fly 30-plus minutes, which is essential if you want to scout for dog poo or litter and not constantly land to recharge batteries.” Also, drones now routinely have multiple visual sensors to help navigate autonomously around parks or down country lanes without hitting trees and the like. 

“And we can now run image recognition on the drone itself,” Wolf says. So the drones could be programmed to distinguish a dog poo from, say, a rock? “We have databases on the drone where it can look up and compare images. It can differentiate between a human being, a bicycle, a car or a ship. So, if you go further, this is similar. This is a piece of paper or this is the rock or this is a dog poo. If it can look up a database and say, OK, this is usually what dog poo looks like, then this is all technology that can be used for that.”

Talking about trash recognition in general, Zack Jackowski, chief engineer for Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, puts it more simply: “The way the machine learning works, if you can visually recognize it as a distinct thing, you can train a robot to recognize it. If you have an easy time picking it out, a robot can have an easy time picking it out.”

“Of course, there’s a lot of different forms of poo that can look very different,” Wolf says. “Form and sizes and consistencies can vary a lot, if it’s on grass and has sunk down or decomposed – but for sure it’s possible.” The really good news is that Wolf says the crap dangling from branches is the easiest to identify. “Something like a bag hanging in a tree would be very easy to detect, and flag, because it will have a very similar shape and color.”

This is the sticking point. Drones would be ideal for flagging and tracking dog poo deposits, but not the actual cleanup. In 2017, a startup in the Netherlands claimed to have created two poop-scooping “Dogdrones,” but the idea never took off. Volunteers willing to help in the testing stages were, perhaps understandably, thin on the ground. Besides, the scooping drone of the pair was ground-based anyway. 

“Picking up a bag might be something possible, I guess,” Wolf says. “Picking up the poo itself, with like a little shovel, that would be hard to implement. You need to increase the size of the drone, the utilities, then that will make everything bigger and more cumbersome.”

Robots to the Rescue

Robots are frequently envisioned as fulfilling jobs involving the three Ds: “dirty, dangerous and dull”. Clearing up dog mess certainly ticks all these boxes. So, for reliable ground clearance, therefore, what we really need is a robot that can go wherever dogs can. This could be one of the best use cases for Spot yet. Indeed, the robot has already been fitted with its Spot Arm for clearing up trash outdoors

Boston Dynamics itself says there is interest in a use case for “Spot + Spot Arm” to be used for cleaning of public spaces and along roadsides, and the operation is in essence similar to the “fetch” behavior the BD engineers have already demonstrated.

It may not be as daring as, say, being used in military training, but Jackowski says devising ways that Boston Dynamics’ canine robot can help society, even if it’s just by cleaning up, is what actually gets his team fired up. “Our engineers love doing applications [such as picking up rubbish] where robots can directly help people. There’s something that feels really good about having a robot cleaning the environment around us, and relieving people of this,” he says.

As for relieving people of picking up doggie doo-doo, Jackowski says that, even though this is not an area the company is pursuing, Spot could handle this right now. “If it’s in a bag, that’s easy to recognize, and it’s actually probably pretty easy to pick up.” What about unbagged whoopsies? “You probably want to give the robot a plastic bag over its gripper. And, if you were really getting into it, you would have a mechanism that lets the robot have a plastic bag that it can change.

“You would have some kind of holder where it can stick its gripper and put it on like a glove,” Jackowski says. And, you know, when it’s done, you deposit the whole plastic bag and object that it picked up in the backpack. Then it would grab a new little glove for itself. That’s all stuff that is pretty easy to engineer and absolutely possible now.” 

What’s more, deploying Spots for clearing public spaces in general might even be cheaper than human labour, particularly in the long-term. “Yes, the robot is expensive today. But people are quite expensive,” Jackowski says, “especially if someone can get injured doing a task. We’re pretty long-term thinkers. Even over the next few years, the costs of this technology will drop rapidly to the point where it makes obvious sense to have robots doing these kinds of interstitial or clean-up tasks. We’re pretty close today, and we’re definitely going to be there in the three-to-five year period.”

Wolf suggests we can even go further than reactive clean-up when it comes to turd transgressions. He thinks that drone tech could be used to actively catch the dastardly dung hangers in the act. “You could use our bigger DJI drones to hover in those spots like drone police. They have big, low-RPM blades, and large zooms. In the UK, the police use them for surveillance of criminals, and they hover in place for hours,” he says. “You can easily spot if a dog is in ‘the position’ and then simply check if the owner takes care of his dog’s work—all from a distance where you would not be able to hear and spot the drone.” 

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.


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