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Sweeping Changes Might be Coming to a Street Near You

Street sweepers around the world spew out about 3 million tonnes of CO2 each year, not to mention noise and particulate matter from their diesel engines. A new electric autonomous sweeper entering commercial trials in Finland looks to clean up these vehicles themselves.

In September 2020 Finnish company Trombia Technologies piloted their all-electric autonomous street sweeper, the Trombia Free, in Helsinki. The move to a commercial trial in Espoo shows that the company found success, and that there is potential for this outdoor, industrial scale, robotic vacuum. According to Trombia the vehicle uses 85% less energy than what their diesel burning, dirt sucking, cousins currently use. If all goes according to plan the company plans to transition toward mass-production of their carbon saving street cleaning machine in early 2022.

A critical question for any autonomous vehicle, and especially one in the northern climate of Finland, is how it handles the changeable weather. The company claims that their robot is “equipped with an all-weather autonomous, lidar-based, machine vision technology that filtrates the noise coming from the environment in rainy, snowy or alternative conditions.” This is a significant claim, and the year-long trial will be a good way of demonstrating it.

Trombia claims that many of the industry’s current street sweepers use 70-year-old technologies that are less efficient that what they have to offer. The Trombia Free brings together multiple innovations, including technology that Trombia is already selling around the world (such as using modern air knife technology to replace traditional suction systems) which are now combined with autonomous features. The development of the cleaning technology took four and a half years, but the addition of automation to the device has been going on for a year and a half. The partner has been GIM Robotics from Espoo. It has been strongly involved with Sensible4 (who we have previously covered) in the development of autonomous driving technology that also works in bad weather and weather conditions.

The sweeper can be set up autonomously in two ways, either through a teach and repeat method or by using a waypoint planner. These methods appear similar to those used by many AV shuttles in setting up digital rail systems.   

Though Espoo is the first place the Trombia Free will be taking to the streets under this commercial trial, the company claims that more sites will be announced in the coming years with some in international locations and in varying traffic contexts.

Personal comment:
Street sweeping is an essential social service not often in focus. It is nice to see a company laying out what appears to be a clear case for how autonomy and electrification can have significant cost and environmental benefits. Though the article did not highlight it, I also believe there could be further social benefits, especially in terms of noise and air pollution. In dense urban areas where street usage is high over long periods of the day, street sweeping can only happen during off-peak hours. Not only can this be loud and disturbing, but getting rid of the fumes from high-power diesel engines is a benefit to everyone.

The application for autonomy is also interesting from the point of view that this street sweeper would seem to sit somewhere in between the categories of sidewalk robots and worksite AVs that operate in confined areas away from public roads. Both those categories offer distinct advantages for autonomous applications compared to passenger vehicle-sized AVs that operate at speed out on public roads – advantages which might not extend to the Trombia Free, however. Trombia’s autonomous street sweeper certainly looks big enough and heavy enough to raise some potential concerns about whether its autonomous technology is up to the task of operating in carparks, let alone on the streets, without supervision. This raises the question of whether the Trombia Free will need ‘backup drivers’? Or even if it might have to go through some sort of certification process similar to, but maybe less stringent than, what Waymo and others have to go through before being allowed to operate without a supervisor in the vicinity. 

Written by Joshua Bronson,
RISE Mobility & Systems (Människa-autonomi)