Bottle Drive

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Kent Gearry

Mechatronics student Kent Gearry is cleaning up his city from a scooter he helped design. He talks to Malcolm Wood.

January 2009. Kent Gearry is on a mission. Spotting the glint of broken glass, he angles his scooter up on to the footpath, the vacuum cleaner roars into life, and, as the shards of beer bottle thump-and-clatter into the aluminium drawer behind him, Gearry pushes the button on the GPS. The glass is gone; the site is logged.

He takes a particular satisfaction in this. Gearry, having helped design and build the mark II ‘scooter vac’, is now its pilot – and so far the experience has been going well. The vacuum cleaner is more than up to the task, and the scooter – generously supplied by Palmerston North’s Honda City – gets by on $5 of petrol every two days and does everything asked of it.

Broken glass is a bane of city life. In Palmerston North alone, broken glass is estimated to cost motorists $350,000 in puncture repairs, while nationwide it results in $3 million worth of claims to ACC annually. Motorists, the drivers of mobility scooters, children in bare feet, pets: where there is broken glass, everyone suffers.

The existing clean-up technology – road sweeping trucks – is ineffectual. Often the glass lies in those places – gutters flanked by parked cars or under bushes – a truck can’t get to.

Two years ago the problem was raised at a Green Hub board of trustees meeting, with ideas being batted about the table: Should someone with a bike and a broom be enlisted to pick up glass? What about a scooter? What about, say, a scooter with a mounted vacuum cleaner? Could the Green Hub contract a service like this to Palmerston North City Council?

Part funded by a $20,000 grant from the Packaging Accord (a voluntary initiative to cut down on wasteful packaging), the Green Hub (see previous pages) and Massey’s School of Engineering and Applied Technology (SEAT) set about testing the possibilities.

For Gearry, here was the ideal project. As a mechatronics student (now entering his fourth year) he needed summer work to carry him through his degree, and his green credentials were good. In fact, as the student association’s environmental officer Gearry was a Green Hub trustee himself.

With the direction and assistance of Jonathan Hannon of the Zero Waste Academy and of Professor Clive Davies and technician Stan Hyde, both of SEAT, Gearry was put to work. There was a proof-of-concept vacuum cleaner to build to show that a small single-cylinder motor would be up to the job. There were blueprints to be drawn up in CAD (Computer Aided Design), a programme to be written for the GPS logging system, and all of the hands-on workshop engineering. There were the measures that would be agreed on and put in place to make the scooter road legal: in this case a sign on the back, “caution, street cleaning, stops frequently”, and a pole-mounted orange flashing light for night use (something the scooter has yet to see).

There were the personal preparations he had to make for his summer duties: gaining his Ministry of  Transport credentials as a traffic controller.

All this Gearry had done. He has even pimped his ride – the scooter sports a custom logo commissioned from Eyecandy creations.

But as any entrepreneur would tell him, designing and engineering the product are only part of it. There is the matter of applying for more funding – that initial $20,000 has only gone so far – while ahead lie the tangle of issues surrounding intellectual property and the prospects for commercialisation. Is there something patentable here? Is the scooter-vac something there might be a wider market for? If so, who would build it?
It must be a relief for him to put it all from his mind momentarily and head out into a bright summer’s day for some find-the-bottle treasure hunting.

For his part, Jonathan Hannon is eagerly waiting on the data Gearry will bring back. The problem of broken glass, he says, is something city councils have yet to get a proper handle on. If city councils can establish links between when and where the incidence of glass is highest then they can take objective measures to solving the problem.

Perhaps, he ponders, it might make sense to rent out the scooter vac to event organisers where an association has been proven.

But he also has larger ambitions. He hopes this multipartner green project will be the forerunner of many others. Here a student has gained practical experience, a city and its residents have gained from the expertise of the university they host, and a community organisation has – good fortune allowing – gained a viable enterprise.

“This is where the connection between Massey, the city, and the Green Hub starts to fuse really nicely.”

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