In the European Union, there’s a ban on using workers to sort refuse for recyclables. Apparently, potential exposure to microbes, toxins, and sharp and heavy items is considered too risky for workers. To help recycling efforts and waste-management tasks, engineers at ZenRobotics in Finland are developing a robotic arm and gripper from off-the-shelf components. The robot will use a variety of sensors to identify useful and dangerous material passing by on a conveyor and treat them accordingly. Some of the sensors the research team have added include haptic sensors for tactile feedback, 3D machine vision, metal detectors, and a spectrometer that identifies an object’s make-up by analyzing light bounced off it. The robot is programmed to use several sensors simultaneously to fully and quickly identify materials. The robot’s suite of sensors can also grow as new sensing technologies come on line.
Currently, the robot can pick up and recognize certain types of plastics, metals, concrete, and wood. In the recycling center, technicians will program the robot to place those items in specific bins and speed recycling. It will place objects and materials it does not recognize back on the conveyor.
In tests, the robot correctly found half of all recyclable material in a stream of trash passing by on a conveyor. In the future, the robot could identify contaminants such as lead, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals, and safely place them in the proper containers. Researchers also plan on adding Geiger counters that would let the robot seek out radioactive objects and remove them safely from the waste stream.