Here's How Garbage Truck Robot Arms Work: An Explainer

Forget supercars, garbage trucks have the most advanced technology you can find on public roads.

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Image for article titled Here's How Garbage Truck Robot Arms Work: An Explainer
Photo: Heil

The fancy robot arm that your neighborhood’s garbage truck is likely to use has a name other than “the claw,” which is what I’ve called it for years. These robot arms are actually called automated side-loaders, and they pretty much confirm that garbage trucks are the closest thing on the road to Transformers.

Every Friday, I find myself sweating over the position of the trash bin in front of my driveway. Because I don’t want to be that guy. You know, the one who makes trash day miserable for drivers by putting the bin just out of reach. So I shuffle the heavy bin a little to the left, a little to the right. Dammit, too far now. As it turns out, my nervous adjustments make no difference at all:

That video is from Heil Environmental Industries, one of the biggest garbage and recycling truck makers, and specifically talks about features (the spear, the can shake!) Heil has added to its automated side-loaders as the tech evolves.

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The ASLs that Heil makes can lift bins ranging from 30 to 300 gallons in size, and the latest designs use both hydraulic tubes and metal rails. The arms have a 3-axis range of motion, and can move way more precisely than I’d have guessed.

Image for article titled Here's How Garbage Truck Robot Arms Work: An Explainer
Photo: Heil
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Truck drivers operate the arms from inside the cab using a joystick and panels full of controls. The arms use camera monitoring systems, which look very similar to the back-up camera systems in cars. Really, the cab of a garbage truck is a mess of panels and switches. It’s a beautiful thing.

Image for article titled Here's How Garbage Truck Robot Arms Work: An Explainer
Screenshot: YouTube
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I’ve often wondered how hard it must be to align the trash bins with the robotic arms. Especially considering it’d be that much harder in a left-hand drive truck — kinda like how it’s harder to park on the right side than the left in American cars. Well, imagine having to operate that huge garbage truck and its robot arm on the opposite side of the driver.

But many cabs are now right-hand drive, and are set up so drivers have a better line of sight with the trash bins. There are a lot of different designs of side-loader mechanisms. Some are older manual side-loaders, too. The industry has moved to automated systems to make waste collection safer, which is good. And of course, having high-tech ASLs means we can all stop shuffling our trash bins.

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Image for article titled Here's How Garbage Truck Robot Arms Work: An Explainer
Photo: Heil