Start-up use robotics and gamification to make recycling better

jodoneWaste isn’t one of those jobs that people queue up to do, so it’s interesting to see a number of projects to apply automation to the work.

Last year, for instance, I wrote about a Swedish project called ROAR (or robot-based autonomous refuse handling), which is the work of Chalmers University of Technology and Mälardalen University in Sweden, Penn State University in the United States, and the waste recycling company Renova.  They have developed a robot capable of interacting with the refuse truck, and its driver.

The robot interacts with the operating system inside the truck and is capable of collecting bins from the street, delivering them to the truck and then depositing the contents inside the vehicle.

Sorting the trash

Now, a start-up called Jodone are working on an automated process of sorting waste.  They have developed a prototype at a waste facility in Alexandria, Minnesota that will help human operators manage the recycling process.  Operators at the facility will use a touch screen to identify recyclable material amongst the waste and ‘swipe’ it into the appropriate container.

This instruction is then sent to a robotic arm that will do the grabbing and moving for them.  It’s a bit like the games you’d find on the end of the pier where you have to grab the cuddly toy, and the feature does indeed have a gamification element whereby workers are incentivized by a bit of extra income.

The hope is that it turns the recycling process into a puzzle, thus attracting a different kind of worker to the job.

Different kinds of income

By making it easier and more effective at sorting recyclable material, the company believe it can generate approximately $24 million for each waste facility.  In a lab environment, the people using the tool have managed to pluck 2,500 items per hour, which is an impressive eight times higher than when humans are deployed on their own.

Now however is the time to put the system to the test in a real-world environment.  They’re confident however that by combining the rote expertise of the robot with the problem solving expertise of the human, they can provide an extremely effective waste recycling system.

It’s nice to see automation working alongside human employees, but the true test of the system will be in its cost effectiveness.  If it can prove itself to be so then it is sure to gain traction in the marketplace, but the jury is still very much out.

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