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Trash talk signals mobile future

Wander through the historic streets of the Roman city of Bath in the UK, and you might sense that they are smarter than average. And you would be right.

It is not just that the streets are clean, it is that intelligent waste bins keep them that way.

The array of solar-powered trash cans deployed around the touristic city center have the ability to call the council refuse department and let it know when they are about to overflow.

It may seem a ridiculous notion, but these smart bins are pathfinders for the future connected world, where machine talks to machine, and where the mobile networks have robotic customers.

By 2020 there will be 50 billion machines connected across the world, thanks to the growth of wireless data, according to the cell phone giant Ericsson.  Indeed, the wired world passed a landmark in 2009, when the number of people connected to the internet was overtaken by the number of devices.

And a report to the US National Intelligence Council highlighted the “internet of things” as one of the disruptive technologies of the near future: “By 2025 internet nodes may reside in everyday things—food packages, furniture, paper documents, and more,” the expert group wrote.

The basic idea is that if all objects are equipped with basic networking abilities, they can be identified and queried by computers, making the world smarter and more convenient. Applications range from the serious to the absurd. Think of a network of tiny sensors deployed around the world that can monitor global temperature and automatically send that information back to a central location. Or sensor-laden buses, trams and trains that broadcast their location to give commuters real-time updates on their location. Or applications that allow you to control the lights in your home remotely. Or smart fridges that alert you when you have run out of milk. Or – of course – bins that can shout when they want to be emptied.

BigBelly Solar, the provider of Bath’s bins, was an early pioneer of M2M, as this kind of machine-to-machine connectivity has also become called, setting up business in 2003. The company’s approach is a microcosm of what the internet of things could offer.

“Going round Boston,” says founder Jim Poss, “I saw all these overflowing garbage cans, and idling garbage trucks, and every time they stopped and started, there was this big plume of black smoke. And I realized there was a problem.”

The problem was a lack of information. The city sanitation department never knew which bins needed emptying making most trips wasteful.

Putting a solar-powered chip into a low-tech bin may seem an over-the-top solution. But Poss underlines that the sanitation system overall is not low tech. With all the organization that goes on running it, there’s actually a lot information being processed in the background.

The bins themselves still aren’t that smart – just smart enough. By posting back regular SMS messages detailing how full they are, they give the network the data it needs to plan ahead, to see which bins will need attending to and which route might be optimal for waste trucks to empty them. If some bins are in rubbish hotspots while others are underused, it’s easy to see which need to be moved.

The fact that the information is handled by the company in Boston, and made available to clients over the internet, underlines the connectedness of the system. It is truly a prototype of the bigger internet of things to come. And the room for growth. The company has 18,000 deployed around the world. “But we’ve barely scratched the surface,” declares founder Jim Poss. “There are millions upon millions of very wasteful garbage cans out there. Let alone when we broaden that to M2M devices in general – the world is our oyster.”

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