Once a wasteland of dropped keys, dentures, and garbage, platform-adjacent train and subway tracks are now littered with wireless earbuds that accidentally fall out as passengers board and leave trains. The problem is so bad that the East Japan Railway Co. has partnered with Panasonic to develop a custom long-necked vacuum that can easily retrieve these valuable artifacts.
According to the East Japan Railway Co., more commonly referred to as JR East by the locals, between July and September of this year there were 950 reports of wireless earbuds dropped onto the tracks at 78 different stations across Tokyo. Given these devices can sometimes cost well north of $200, JR East staffers are often asked to retrieve them right away, instead of waiting until cleaning staff can safely do a sweep after the last train of the day has left.
Previously, stations relied on simple grabber devices featuring a claw on the end of a long pole that can open and close to grasp onto larger objects like garments, shoes, water bottles, and trash. But given how small wireless earbuds like Apple’s AirPods are, they often end up falling between rocks or ending up in crevices making them impossible to retrieve using these existing tools.
The solution JR East came up with was to partner with Panasonic to create a device reminiscent of a cordless stick vacuum. An extending neck allows it to reach the tracks while being safely operated from a station’s platform, and instead of a claw on the end, it has a series of very narrow flexible tubes that grab hold of a small object using suction without actually sucking it up into the tube.
The vacuum is currently being tested at JR East’s Ikebukuro Station and while it’s been demonstrated retrieving Apple AirPods, its design should easily allow it to securely grab onto and rescue any style of wireless earbuds accidentally dropped off a platform. If it eventually makes it into service, hopefully, Panasonic will release the custom attachment the retrieval tool relies on for the cordless vacuums the company sells directly to consumers, because subway and train platforms are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to where wireless earbuds get accidentally dropped and lost.