Federally funded research into using robots to replace humans on MRF sorting lines could significantly lower materials sorting costs.

“We’d like to reduce the cost of recycling and make it a little more cost-competitive with the cost of landfilling across the country,” Matanya Horowitz of AMP Robotics told Resource Recycling.

The National Science Foundation awarded the Boulder, Colo. startup a $150,000 grant to support the research. The funding flowed through the Small Business Innovation Research program, which provides seed funding for projects that meet national priorities but are still considered too risky to attract money from venture capitalists, Horowitz said.

Recycling robots already exist, relying on a variety of sensors and mechanical hands to snag objects off conveyor belts and deposit them in bins.

AMP’s research, however, is focused not so much on the hands of robots but on their brains.

Keeping MRFs in mind

AMP is focusing on improvements to the ability of a computer to learn how to recognize objects based on their appearance, including their size, shape, color and texture, using both visible and infrared light, Horowitz said. The machine learns how to recognize objects primarily by “seeing” thousands or millions of photos of them.

“In controlled situations like the one we have here, basically, if a person can tell what the object is, then a machine can tell what the object is,” he said.

The company is also working to design small, easy-to-install systems that won’t require re-engineering a MRF. They’re designing systems with the same footprints as humans at sorting stations, he said.

The goal is to offer a simple system costing 30 percent less than a human worker, when costs are spread over three years, he said. “Those numbers are something we’re very comfortable with,” he said.

One industry expert said AMP isn’t sailing utterly uncharted waters.

Kerry Sandford, an equipment expert and co-founder of consulting firm Resource Recycling Systems, said computers already possess the ability to recognize objects based on appearance. And robots are currently used in the packaging industry to sort materials, although, in that industry, the materials are more predictable and have a higher value than typical recyclables.

Several companies have announced efforts to develop robots for sortation, but only Bollegraaf Recycling Solutions has implemented them, introducing them to European MRFs, Sandford said. Bollegraff’s website shows it employs robots in a quality-control function focusing on fibers in single-stream MRFs, reducing labor costs.

“My inclination is to be somewhat skeptical because of all of the other ones I’ve seen not make it,” he said.

A robot’s role

A robotic arm can’t match the speed of other sorting technologies, so the goal is to create a lower-throughput machine to work in tandem with sorting devices by filling the role humans currently occupy, Horowitz said.

A robot could work longer hours than humans without the risk of injury, he said.

Sandford believes robotic sorting will play a role in the recycling system at some point. The key will be increasing sorting speeds, decreasing costs and incorporating robots appropriately into the system, he said.

“I think it will be one of those pieces that gets added in as its role is figured out,” he said.

Unlike a human, a robot could tell the difference between various resins. Yet unlike an optical sorter, it could effectively sort multiple materials from one conveyor, he said.

Sandford added robotic technologies could be well suited to areas with challenging environments, such as dusty C&D facilities.

Primarily a software company, AMP has built a simple prototype, called “The Pusher,” that has a 95 percent accuracy rate sorting five types of C&D debris with the belt moving at 80-100 feet per minute, Horowitz said. The company is working to boost sorting speeds as well as delve into MSW materials.

AMP is also currently working on a more advanced prototype, which is expected to be operational in about three months.

If all goes according to plan, in 2016 AMP will start testing and shooting video of the robots operating in MRFs.

“We want to make a product that’s not a lab curiosity,” Horowitz said. “We want to make something that will run 24/7 for years.”