Reposted from the IoT Journal:
The fast-growing business hopes to leverage a piece of vital urban infrastructure—the public waste bin—into a tool for deploying smart-city applications.
When Bigbelly, Inc., was founded in 2003, the company was focused solely on improving a costly, inefficient municipal service: garbage collection. By integrating a solar-powered compactor that periodically dampens trash bins’ contents, the company’s receptacles are able to hold significantly more refuse than conventional cans. Twelve years later, Bigbelly is using Internet of Things technology to make trash collection even more efficient—yet it also may emerge as a lynchpin in the wireless sensor network infrastructure on which many smart-city applications rely.
Early on, the company presented the value proposition that municipalities would see a return on their investment in the Bigbelly bins by reducing the number of collections required to empty bins located in busy urban corridors. For the Massachusetts city of Sommerville, this meant that collectors no longer had to empty bins in popular downtown squares during busy summer weekends.
In addition, converting to the compacting bins meant that city streets would be freer of litter that typically falls from overflowing trash bins.
But while the bins were cleverly designed, they were not yet “smart” in the ways that the term has come to be defined within an IoT context. A green indicator light on a bin would remain green until an electronic eye sensor within it indicated that the bin was nearly full, at which point the light would turn yellow. This alerted collectors that the bin should be emptied soon, whereas a red light signified that it was at or very near capacity. But this required that the collection staff psychically check the lights on the bins.
“In addition to handling peak loads, there would be additional value in knowing when you did not have to send trucks to empty the bins,” explains Bigbelly’s CEO, Jack Kutner. So in 2009, the firm began developing a wireless capability that would enable customers to determine when a bin was sufficiently full to merit a pickup.
This process entailed integrating a cellular modem into the bin, which transmits fullness data to Bigbelly’s enterprise waste-management software platform, known as CLEAN. Customers can log into this platform via an online portal to check specific bins’ fullness levels prior to setting a given day’s collection routes. A sensor system determines fullness level by measuring the pressure against the compaction ram arm.
Conversely, for Bigbelly bins lacking the integrated compactor (sold as Smartbelly bins), an ultrasonic proximity sensor determines the fill level. In both cases, the bins also include asensor that tracks the number of times a particular bin’s main compartment is opened and closed. This data, along with timestamps correlating to the door’s opening and closing actions, is periodically forwarded to the CLEAN software so that the collection agency can confirm when bins are emptied. Using an application programming interface, an end user can opt to integrate the CLEAN software within its own enterprise waste-management platform, thereby eliminating the need to log into Bigbelly’s online portal.
Armed with the ability to check fullness levels remotely, collection agencies can achieve more significant labor savings, as well as save fuel by not having to make a trip to a bin until it needs to be emptied. “Our customers report an average of 80 percent efficiency gained by having real-time remote access to this data,” Kutner says.
All of the sensors, the compacting ram and the modem, Kutner explains, are powered by a small 12-volt battery that “we’re constantly trickle-charging” through a solar panel mounted on each bin. Bigbelly has optimized the system to be extremely efficient, he says, such that the bins are powered even during periods of very low light. When the battery is nearing the end of its lifecycle, the processor inside the bin sends a low-battery alert via the CLEAN platform.
In 2008, the company began offering Bigbelly (and now also Smartbelly) recycling bins, and Kutner reports that roughly half of his customers opt to install recycling bins alongside trash bins. More recently, the firm introduced composting bins as well.
Bigbelly has seen significant growth in recent years, and now has more than 1,500customers, including municipalities, colleges and universities, transit systems, parks, beaches, health-care facilities, corporate campuses, retail and mixed-use companies, ports and government facilities worldwide. It sells a subscription service by which trash-collection agencies (either third parties or municipal collectors) can lease bins and subscribe to the CLEAN software through a software-as-a-service model. Alternatively, the bins can be purchased outright and be bundled with a software contract.
Because Bigbelly and Smartbelly bins are self-powered and extremely energy-efficient, the company is pitching them to city planners as ubiquitous, distributed, small power plants that could be used to operate additional sensors, which would enable a wide variety of smart-city applications. These sensors could be employed for such applications as tracking footfalls (information that can help planners understand traffic flow and thus design more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure), monitoring air quality or noise pollution, and installing wireless modems for offering free Wi-Fi.
According to Kutner, Bigbelly is currently in discussions with several cities regarding how they could leverage the bins for a number of applications. To date, however, none have yet been announced.
“Our perception of the IoT or smart cities means having real applications solving real problems,” Kutner says. “The connectivity that Bigbelly offers is an accelerator to that. We feel it roughly doubles our value proposition [to cities].”