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Recycling has a positive impact on the world we live in but for those working in recycling centers sorting through trash can be a dirty and hazardous job. Now, a pioneering robotics technology is being developed by a robotics scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) with the assistance of a team of students and researchers from WPI, Yale, and Boston University.
Having acquired $2.5 million in funding from National Science Foundation’s Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier the team of nine will spend four years building the technology. Leading the project is Berk Calli, assistant professor in the computer science department and robotics engineering program at WPI, who hopes his team can reduce the risk for plant workers who sort mixed recyclables by hand.
What we are trying to do is to introduce robotics technology in such a way that the working conditions of these employees improve.
In the US alone recycling is a 177 billion dollar industry which employs more than 500,000 people and according to the EPA, Americans recycle 68 million tons of waste each year. While cardboard and paper make up for over 65 percent of the overall amount of recycled waste, many of the materials that pass through can be contaminated or harmful such as lead-acid batteries, broken glass containers, and sharp metals.
What’s more is China (the largest consumer of US recyclables) has implemented new tariffs on waste which will lead to a complete ban effective as of 2020. Taiwan has also imposed new tariffs while Malaysia and Vietnam will discontinue issuing import licenses for recyclable plastic, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association.
With these recent changes affecting the exportation of recyclables the industry is faced with new challenges as centers struggle to manage the volume of waste at economically viable levels. So, investing in new technology to speed up the processing of waste could be one solution.
How the WIP project aims to approach industry challenges is not by replacing the human worker(s) but giving them the technology to make their working conditions safer, as Calli states, “We approach the problem from a worker-centric view and aim for a human-robot collaboration-based robotic system in which the dirty and dangerous aspect of the job is minimized. Such an approach includes understanding the needs and demands of the workers together with the challenges of the recycling industry, and our interdisciplinary team will cover all these aspects while developing the robotic system.”
Robotics and AI systems could offer improved safety and efficiency at recycling plants as it is a scheme that could monitor all hazardous materials that pass-through sorting lines. Yet, this is no easy task as the system has to be able to differentiate between different materials, shapes and sizes, often clustered together. Therefore, part of the project is to develop new object detection technology and machine learning techniques in conjunction with robotic arms for effective sorting. “We need to basically use everything that we have in the state of the art of robotics, plus push it even further so that we can actually start solving the problem,” said Calli.
The grant from the Future of Work program will enable the collaborative team to access the requisite resources to develop solutions in an industry facing accelerated reform.“This grant will provide opportunities to study how human workers and robots can work together collaboratively in a physically challenging work environment,” said Jacob Whitehill, assistant professor in computer science at WPI and co-principle investigator.
Material recycling facilities are not only an important workplace in their own right for environmental reasons, but they also can serve as a research model for how humans and technology can cooperate in the future of work.
With the future of jobs, workers, and the planet at stake in a society facing rapid sociological, technological, and ecological change understanding how humans and robotics can enhance the world for better could help instigate the progress of the human-technology-nature partnership.