The Dog Poodemic Is Here. Call in the Dung-Hunting Drones


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.