Standing around, sorting debris from construction or demolition projects for recycling ... it probably isn't anyone's idea of a good time. Given the risks posed by sharp or heavy objects and airborne particles, it's not a particularly safe way of making a buck either. That's where, perhaps someday soon, ZenRobotics' Recycler autonomous waste-sorting robot arm will come into play.

Using artificial intelligence (AI) and an array of sensors, the Recycler is intended to watch over a conveyor belt, targeting and plucking objects from a waste stream that rolls by on it. The robot will then drop each of those items into a specific chute, which will send them on their way to the appropriate recycling facilities. Non-recyclable items will simply stay on the belt, and end up being discarded.

Each robot would be mounted within a cell, which would consist of a screened-in framework that is simply placed over an existing sorting line. For larger projects, multiple robotic cells could be placed side-by-side on the same line.

Finland's ZenRobotics claims that the system could be trained to identify a wide range of plastics, along with objects such as pipes, cables, batteries and various types of light bulbs, along with materials such as stone, concrete, brick, wood and gypsum plaster boards. Besides selecting recyclable materials, they say, it could also seek out hazardous items such as radioactive smoke detectors.

The AI system analyzes data at a speed of 80 Hertz, and is based around a machine learning algorithm modeled on the human cerebellum – the part of the brain responsible for coordination and the timing of movements. That algorithm helps the robot adapt quickly to new situations, and to identify important elements in the vast amounts of data it's constantly receiving.

That data is provided by sensing systems that could include visible spectrum, infrared and other types of cameras, 3D laser scanners, haptic sensors, X-rays, metal detectors, barcode readers, weigh scales, and various other technologies.

ZenRobotics states that by using its robots, users could get more cash for recyclables, reduce landfill tipping fees, lower their operating costs, and reduce the risk to human employees who would otherwise be doing the sorting themselves. They also foresee a day when a smaller version could be used for sorting household waste.

Testing of the Recycler began in February, and so far the robot has been able to identify about half of the materials fed to it.

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