The COVID-19 crisis has “heightened the economic imperative to improve recycling,” particularly as countries seek to bring more parts of their supply chains closer to home. Yet, the sorting and disassembly required in order to recycle effectively and safely is not unlike “unscrambling an egg”—in other words, challenging.
Roboticists think that, “computer vision, neural networks and modular robotics can enable a more intelligent, flexible approach to recycling.” For instance, AI-enabled robotics can identify items based on visual cues such as logos or color, and sort or take them apart accordingly.
“Such systems excel at identifying small items, such as the coffee pods used in Nespresso machines, which, while technically recyclable, are not always recycled. “You can categorize and subcategorize, and the robotics are getting smarter as a result of artificial intelligence,” notes Chris Wirth, vice-president of marketing and business development for AMP Robotics.
And, taking products apart will become “increasingly important” as more waste is electronic, which often contains valuable materials such as gold, silver, platinum and cobalt.
Shahin Rahimifard, professor of sustainable engineering at the UK’s Loughborough University observes that, “In electric cars, most of the value will be the precious metals which, by weight, could be only four or five percent.” His team is developing a robotic dissembler.
“This technology is creating a sustainable workforce for jobs that aren’t being filled,” notes Wirth. “These are the dull, dirty, dangerous kind of jobs which robotics and AI is perfect for.”