‘Internet of Things’ digs into dumpster opportunities

Korean-American tech firm wants to bring network connection, data collection to public trash bins

Los Angeles-based Ecube Labs, which is helping to expand the global market for Clean Cubes, has installations in Hermosa Beach, California, and Washington, D.C. | Submitted

The "Internet of Things” (or IoT), in which machines are fitted with sensors and network connectivity to exchange data with one another, enabling services like remote activation and monitoring, may soon be literally going into the dumpster.

That’s because one company is aiming to enter the Canadian market with its line of “smart” public trash bins, fitted with sensors to monitor the capacity, with a software program connected to the bins via Wi-Fi notifying the appropriate agency when a bin gets too full, or when an emergency such as a garbage fire occurs.

Los Angeles-based Ecube Labs, one of the few companies expanding the use of these “Clean Cubes” on the global market, said it has installations in cities like Hermosa Beach, California, and Washington, D.C. Michael Son, CFO of investments and global business development with Ecube, said the company has also found a partner in Toronto and is looking to launch a pilot program in Markham and Mississauga.

Son added Ecube is actively looking to get into the Metro Vancouver market, given the city’s reputation for embracing green, sustainable programs in civil practices like garbage collection and recycling. He noted that the ideal locations for the solar-powered Clean Cubes – high-foot-traffic outdoor areas where garbage overflows occur often – fit the profile of some Vancouver neighbourhoods as closely as they do some of Ecube’s most successful overseas markets such as Melbourne.

“What we are really bringing to the table is not just a smart trash can, but also somewhat of an urban information hub,” Son said, noting the Clean Cubes can also be fitted as Wi-Fi hotspots, as well as display boards for advertising or public messages, to serve multiple civic functions.

“By getting these Clean Cubes connected to an overall information network that’s also linked to city services, we see ourselves as, in a way, helping to facilitate or assist in the everyday public service provided by municipalities.”

Son noted that Ecube Labs is still conducting case studies at many of the sites where Clean Cubes have been rolled out, but initial returns are “encouraging” – a 90% decrease in overflow at Hermosa Beach, fewer rodents at its Washington, D.C., site, a reduction of the number of garbage collections needed, from 4.6 every day to 0.6, in Shanghai, and a 25% increase in collection efficiency in Melbourne.

And while Ecube’s manufacturing and R&D are conducted in South Korea, Son said the company’s corporate office location in California has allowed it to tap into a North American market that’s increasingly aware of how data collection can create a more sustainable urban environment.

“We are fortunate in North America that timing of our product aligns well with the boom of smart-city activities,” Son said.

IoT has been popping up in various household appliances in recent years. Electronics makers Samsung and LG have been among the most aggressive promoters of the technology for household use, making refrigerators with cameras to track, say, how much milk is left, and including a connection through credit card mobile apps to allow an owner to order needed groceries for delivery, directly from the fridge.

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, various companies showed off products such as an oven that can be remote-controlled by mobile app, a toothbrush that advises a user on how to improve brushing techniques, automatic blinds that can be programmed to open or shut based on the sunlight during a specific time of day, and a mirror that assesses a user’s skin conditions.

“The one thing that is true is that device capabilities like IoT will become ubiquitous,” said Carl Anderson, president and CEO of the BC Innovation Council, who closely tracks IoT development within the sector. “There’s a parallel with the internet itself; in 1975, 0.25% of the global population was on the net. In 2017, that percentage is 51%. For IoT, where we are at high now is the 1975 level for internet use; more application will come.”

Anderson said there will be cases where IoT will be especially welcomed by consumers. One such field is seniors’ care, in which IoT could allow for non-intrusive monitoring of an elderly person living alone.

One company trying to enter the Canadian market with such a product is South Korea-based Dream Visions, which developed a wireless sensor that tracks a senior’s heart rate, body temperature and movements without requiring a wristband. The company’s CEO, Huh Kak, acknowledged, however, that most consumers have limits of how far they want data collection to go.

Huh said one of its clients, when first implementing the sensors at some Korean seniors’ homes, offered closed-circuit TV recording as part of the package, touching off complaints from some consumers of an invasion of privacy.

“I think, in cases like this, people would benefit with an option of not having the camera,” Huh said. “We stress that the data collected from the monitors go to an automatic monitoring program, and human officials are only notified when there’s an issue [with the resident]. People are sensitive about personal data.”

Anderson agreed that there is a limit to consumers’ acceptance of data collection by IoT devices, noting that there is likely a demographic factor. The younger and more tech-savvy a person is, the more likely he or she will accept a trade-off of some personal data in exchange for greater convenience.

“The key is not to oversubscribe what people want,” he said. “In order for a consumer to switch from a watch to a smartwatch – one that you have to charge every day – there has to be value in that change. Just sticking [IoT technology] on a toaster becomes unattractive because you have to keep it connected all the time, and sometimes you’ll have to update the software…. There’s no longer a technological barrier to do something, but there is a barrier to why we are doing it. There has to be a payback.”

To Son, Ecube’s benefits are crystal clear, considering the company is not dabbling in consumer electronics, but rather waste management.

“The smart-cities initiatives that many cities are now moving into is where it is seen as a benefit to add such peripheral sensors to be included in their overall city dashboard supporting various departments,” Son said. “Waste-industry officials are more concerned with what the data reveals and what that data represents in terms of operational impact.… The waste industry isn’t so much concerned with it being a technology hub of sorts, though it doesn’t hurt when pitching these types of technology.” 

Note: Some interviews for this story were conducted at Invest Korea in Seoul, for which the reporter’s airfare and accommodations were provided by the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.