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Let the robots do the recycling

The ZenRobotics Recycler is the world’s first robotic waste sorting system. Currently designed for construction and demolition waste, the ZenRobotics Recycler uses advanced machine learning technology to reclaim valuable raw materials from waste.

People generate literally billions of tonnes of waste around the world, year after year. Despite all the recycling efforts that we hear so much about, a staggering 98% of all products purchased still ends up in landfills or is incinerated just six months after purchase according to some studies.

To help turn this tide, ZenRobotics has developed a unique and revolutionary recycling technology that promises to take a market that still relies on methods developed in the nineteenth century – such as manual picking, crushing, and screening – well and truly into the twenty-first century.

A revolution in the making

The ZenRobotics Recycler is a unique, revolutionary recycling technology that brings advanced robotics to the waste management world for the first time.
The ZenRobotics Recycler, as the company’s first product is called, has the potential to bring the same increase in efficiency to recycling that the automotive industry received when it received its first robots back in the 1970s.

This is no mean task when one realises that the rough and tumble of the waste management environment is far too complicated and chaotic for standard robot control systems. Identifying raw materials and picking them out in an environment like this calls for in-depth know-how in areas such as sensory fusion, data mining, machine learning, and real-time robotics.

The potential benefits are indisputable, as robotic recycling is the most effective approach to recycling out there, whether your yardstick is cost per tonne, capital invested vs. revenue stream, occupational safety, or machinery upgrade paths.

Inspired by the human brain

The ZenRobotics Recycler works its magic – reclaiming valuable raw materials from waste – with the help of advanced machine learning technology. The core technology of the system is an artificial intelligence-based ‘brain’, which controls a robot arm and is fed a vast quantity of real-time data from a battery of advanced sensors, including near-infrared cameras, 3D laser scanners, and metal detectors.

This data not only enables the system to identify and pick out selected items from the waste carried past it in on a conveyor, it enables the ZenRobotics Recycler to learn from its mistakes as well.

"Robotic recycling is the most effective 
approach out there."

The range of sensors used, together with how the data is analysed, results in a significantly more comprehensive view of the contents of a waste stream than has so far been possible. The analysis part of the equation relies on technologies such as real-time data mining and an algorithm modelled on the real-life function of the human cerebellum, which is responsible for things such as the timing of our movements and our overall coordination.

By combining sensory data, including historical data, the system can decide whether an item is wanted or not and – if it is – select the optimum way for gripping and removing it from the waste stream.

By applying machine learning to combine data from two or more physical sensors to create a ‘virtual sensor’, the system behind the ZenRobotics Recycler generates data that would be impossible to obtain traditionally, by using the data from two physical sensors separately.

The initial target market for the ZenRobotics Recycler is construction and demolition waste. This unit, delivered to a customer in the Netherlands, is the world’s first twin-arm ZRR system.

Future-proofed technology

Drawing on two decades of Finnish research into areas such as computational neuroscience, the ZenRobotics Recycler has no direct competitors, and is currently sold in over 50 countries.

ZenRobotics’ initial target market is construction and demolition waste; the EU alone generates more than 900,000,000 tonnes of this type of waste annually. The current ZenRobotics Recycler separates metal, wood, and stone fractions from incoming waste. Thanks to its unique technology, it will be possible to upgrade the system in the future to handle various other types of solid waste, such as different types of plastic fractions.

While a human sorter can become tired in a matter of hours, a ZenRobotics Recycler will keep operating robustly, around the clock if needed. The technology also eliminates human exposure to the dangers typical of manual sorting such as microbes, toxins, and sharp and heavy items.
> Timo Haanpää
(Published in HighTech Finland 2013)