Technology helping to take out the trash

25 Aug 2003

The distinctive yellow trucks of Mr Binman are a common sight in the mid-west of Ireland. The Kilmallock, Co Limerick-based waste management company operates a fleet of 70 vehicles that collects domestic and commercial refuse “from the Galway border to the Waterford border into Kerry, North Cork and Limerick city and county,” according to Mr Binman managing director, Martin Sheahan.

The company, which is 10 years old this year, employs 160 people and is one of the largest private domestic waste management contractors in the country with a customer base of approximately 145,000 households. In addition, it services approximately 2,500 commercial clients including the University of Limerick, Golden Vale, Bulmers and Moy Insulation.

Because of the competitive nature of the business – the local authorities in which Mr Binman operates have deregulated refuse collections – Sheahan has to make sure his company delivers a value for money service at the lowest cost possible. To help him achieve that he has turned to a combination of two similar sounding yet quite different technologies: GPS (global positioning system) and GPRS (general packet radio service).

The technology is provided by mobile operator O2 and its technology partner Minorplanet. Essentially, each vehicle – so far about 60 of the Mr Binman fleet have been equipped – carries a sealed box containing a GPS receiver and a GPRS transmitter. The GPS receiver pinpoints the vehicle’s location by comparing the time signal from at least three satellites from an orbiting fleet of satellites. This information is then transmitted to Mr Binman’s head office over O2’s always-on data network (GPRS). The location of each vehicle is then displayed in a map format on a computer screen. “You can see truck going along the road,” says Sheahan. “It’s like watching a video game. Minorplanet updates the maps with new roads and housing estates every six months.” It is also possible to calculate the fuel consumption for each vehicle and to determine how long it will take a given driver to reach a particular point.

“If we have truck in Shannon and someone wants a skip collected, we can check where a truck is. It might be only half a mile away so we can divert it,” explains Sheahan. The system also removes a lot of uncertainty from managing his fleet. “When truck goes out in the morning we would lose contact with it. People being what they are, you radio a driver and ask ‘have you passed Charleville yet?’ and he’ll say they passed it an hour ago, but I can now see they haven’t been there at all. If a truck pulls in for one hour, we know.”

However, one of the most important features is the ability to record all details of a vehicle’s route. “We had an accident recently,” says Sheahan. “Fortunately, as it turned out it wasn’t too serious, but a worker fell off the rear step.” Under EU regulations, waste collection trucks must be fitted with an inhibitor that restricts speed to 15km per hour when someone is standing on the rear step. “The story was that the truck was speeding in excess of 60mph when the accident happened. But when we went back and looked at the record, it showed the truck hadn’t passed 15km per hr for the previous 10km.” According to Sheahan, his insurance company was facing a major payout and he was facing a hike in premiums but the information from the system allowed the responsibility for the accident to be apportioned more fairly.

The system has also been useful in proving whether or not the company’s trucks were present or not at the scene of an accident. “Bin trucks are victims of housing estates. People complain that their car was damaged at such and such a time only Mr Binman was there. We ask what time they parked and we know what time the truck was there so we can tell if our truck was involved or not.”

Reaction from his staff has been supportive. “A lot of people have asked us how we got staff to accept the technology, but there was no reaction. We don’t use it as a big stick against staff. We use it for data and for the information we need.”

“We have had the system for three years now and I’m very happy with it,” he says. “What it has saved us most of all is peace of mind. It has saved fuel as well. People know that I know where they are and they are not going places they shouldn’t go. I would strongly recommend it to other fleet owners.”

By David Stewart