It’s time to leave dull, dirty, and unsafe recycling work to robots

Innovative robotic solutions could enhance work at recycling facilities and make it a lot safer
MIT’s robot, called RoCycle, picks, sorts, and identifies objects
AMP Robotics developed an AI-powered dual-robot system capable of sorting objects at a speed of 160 pieces per minute
The US Army deployed nine SNL robots at its recycling facility in Alabama to disassemble and recycle old weapons

As our cities expand and the urban population grows, the amount of waste we generate just keeps growing. But all that waste has to go somewhere, often ending up in the environment or polluting the air as its burned. Overwhelmed waste collection systems and inefficient practices are quickly crumbling under the mounting pressure of urban residents. Recycling can help solve this issue, but the process itself involves more than just separating recyclable from non-recyclable materials.

As a matter of fact, besides being dirty and monotonous, recycling is a dangerous job. Even workers who are properly trained are at risk of suffering injuries during the recycling process. Exposure to hazardous materials and heavy machinery operation are making this job rather unsafe for human workers. In the UK, for instance, the waste and recycling industry had a higher rate of fatal injury in 2017 than any other industry, beating both construction and agriculture.

Despite these dangers, the global recycling market is a growing business. As Absolute Reports shows, the global waste recycling services market was worth $372.4 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach a value of $403.5 billion by 2025. And in the US, waste management companies process an estimated 68 million tons of recycling every year. Since the industry will continue to grow in the future, recycling facilities will need to rely more on technology to automate operations, protect human workers, and enhance recycling processes. And what better way to do this than to implement innovative robotic solutions.


MIT’s recycling robot robot identifies objects made from paper, metal, and plastic

One such solution was recently developed by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). MIT’s team created a robotic system that’s able to detect whether an object is made from plastic, metal, or paper. Their innovation, dubbed RoCycle, consists of a soft robotic hand that can be attached to virtually any robotic arm. It’s made from a relatively new material called auxetics, and thanks to strain and pressure sensors that are placed on the robot’s ‘fingertips’, it can accurately identify an object’s size and stiffness to determine its material. MIT News reports that the robot is 85 per cent accurate in detecting an object’s material when it’s stationary, but this number drops to 63 per cent with a simulated conveyor belt. However, this low percentage was mostly due to paper-covered metal tins confusing the sensors, which the researchers plan to correct by adding more sensors.

This innovation is almost completely puncture-resistant, which means that even if RoCycle gets punctured by a needle or gets scraped by a sharp lid, it will suffer only minimal structural damage. But the researchers aren’t stopping there, and they plan to combine the robot’s tactile capabilities with cameras to further increase its speed and accuracy.


AMP Robotics developed a dual-robot solution that sorts 160 objects per minute

Another useful recycling system comes from the robotics company AMP Robotics, which created a dual-robot system called AMP Cortex. This solution relies on an AI platform that uses computer vision and machine learning to correctly detect and identify which material an object is made from. The system can pick and sort objects at a speed of 160 pieces per minute, and unlike human workers, it can operate 24/7 and will sort solid waste, electronic waste, and construction and demolition waste with high precision.

What makes this tech even more appealing is that it can be easily implemented into existing recycling plants, allowing facilities to benefit from automation without having to undergo a major retrofit. According to the company’s CEO, Matanya Horowitz, the “innovation further improves the economics of recycling by helping waste management companies meet increased quality standards, reduce operational costs, and achieve their productivity goals”.


The US Army is using robots to disassemble and recycle outdated weapons

But commercial recycling isn’t the only area where robots can truly shine. They could also be particularly useful in disassembling and recycling weapons. Getting rid of obsolete weapons has been a major problem for the US, which is one of the world’s top manufacturers of weapons. This process, if not conducted very carefully, can lead to human fatalities. So, to make it safer and faster, the engineering and science laboratory Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) developed a robotic system that’s already being used by the US Army at its recycling facility in Alabama.

Nine robots have been deployed at the facility, and so far, they’ve disassembled 700,000 rockets. The facility isn’t completely automated, though, because human workers are still there to supervise the robots at a safe distance. Previous methods of getting rid of outdated weapons included detonating, burning, or burying it, but since such processes are accompanied by environmental issues and are quite expensive, SNL’s robots provide a better alternative.


Robots could soon become the holy grail of recycling

Although most recycling facilities still heavily rely on humans to pick and sort objects, recent advancements in the field of robotics are promising to make the industry a lot safer and more efficient. Robots equipped with AI are an ideal solution for the recycling sector. As more recycling plants implement them, the impact of robotics on the recycling and waste industry will become even more pronounced.  


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