Robotics in Waste Management
For many materials recovery and recycling facilities, waste sorting is a manual and menial task. However, the industry has slowly been changing over the past few years. More and more companies are willing to include waste sorting robots in their operations, which leads to the rising popularity of firms like AMP Robotics, ZenRobotics, and Recycleye. These specialists have developed robots that employ artificial intelligence to successfully sort waste. The robots are equipped with sensors and cameras that analyze the waste stream in real time. With the help of AI-powered machine vision, the robot then identifies the objects and determines the best gripping point before picking the items from the conveyor belt.
Although these sorting robots usually require considerable investments, there are multiple use cases, especially across Europe and America. From plastic bottles to metals or wood, waste sorting robots are designed to handle a variety of different waste materials, and the underlying AI can be trained accordingly. This also means that materials recovery and recycling facilities can increase their operational efficiency since tasks are executed faster (e.g., the robot from ZenRobotics can do up to 2,000 picks per hour and gripper; Recycleye does 55 picks per minute) and errors are less likely to occur. Furthermore, the robotic system is better at identifying materials that are intact and can be sold for reuse.
There is also a lot of discussion about how robotics can be employed to handle electronic waste (e-waste). Usually, e-waste (electronic devices like smartphones, laptops, and medical devices, but also bigger objects such as printers and freezers) is shredded and then sifted to retrieve the precious metals that can be reused. Unfortunately, many materials still get lost in that process. An alternative approach would be to dismantle discarded electronic products. This method is very time-consuming and expensive, though, which is why it is not very widespread.
Interestingly, tech giant Apple made a first attempt at creating a dismantling robot in 2016. Through an internal R&D project, Apple built Liam, a robot that can disassemble an iPhone 6 in 11 seconds and sort the retrieved components (e.g., battery, speaker, rear-facing camera, etc.). In 2022, the US-based company presented a new disassembling robot, Daisy. Unlike its predecessor, Daisy can disassemble 23 different iPhone models in less than a minute, allowing Apple to recover rare earth materials and metals such as aluminum, cobalt, tungsten, gold, and tin without damaging them. Whether Apple will actually roll out Daisy on a larger scale remains to be seen, but for now, the tech company has declared that it would be willing to license the patents related to the disassembling robot to other companies and researchers free of charge.
Overall, the use of robots and AI in waste management, materials recovery, and recycling is still limited to few use cases. However, we see growing potential here. For one thing, the available technology keeps improving. In the e-waste domain, for instance, one major challenge is to build a robot that recognizes different models of a device and successfully disassembles them according to their specificities. For now, it seems that Daisy is the closest thing to providing a solution for this problem, but at PAC we are still waiting to see relevant use cases. Second, it is widely known that resources around the world are depleting fast and their exploitation is having a negative ecological impact. The possibility to disassemble electronic waste and retrieve undamaged resources could become a real alternative to mining if deployed on a large scale.