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  • 10.05.15

Robots Are Coming For Your Recycling (And That’s A Good Thing)

Robots are starting to take the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs away from humans–and that’s why we built them.

Working in a recycling facility is dangerous. Recent figures from the University of Illinois’s School of Public Health show that workers in a recycling plant are more than twice as likely to be injured at work as the average worker. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 recycling workers died on the job in the U.S.

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So perhaps we shouldn’t be too disheartened by the prospect of robots coming to the recycling industry. If recycling is dangerous and disgusting, then let’s get machines to do it. These guys don’t care if you throw needles and knives into the garbage. And, yes, using robots should be cheaper than human labor, which means we can do more recycling. More recycling is a good thing.

AMP Robotics thinks it can cut the cost of running recycling by half, or even two-thirds, mainly from the substitution of machines for humans. It’s working on two robot systems, including a “cartesian-type” (which moves along an overhead gantry) and a “spider-type” (a swooping multi-pronged arm).

“The key part of [most recycling facilities] is people standing around a conveyor picking garbage out,” says founder Matanya Horowitz. “It’s a dangerous job and unpleasant, and expensive because you need a tremendous amount of manual labor. We hope to change the economics so recycling isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also the economically superior choice.”

Based in Boulder, Colorado, AMP isn’t making robot hardware itself. It does the object recognition and software. The spider robot comes from a Swiss company (that Horowitz doesn’t want to name), which currently sells it to the food processing industry.

“We use an array of off-the-shelf sensors, then we use a tremendous of image processing and machine-learning to recognize different kinds of object,” Horowitz says. “We’ve showed the robotic system thousands of pictures of bottles and cans, bricks and everything else, and it’s learned the distinguishing features in the waste stream.” These include shapes and the way light reflects off certain cartons and even labels. The systems can tell, for instance, when it sees a Pepsi can, and grab it.

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AMP isn’t the first on the market. Zen Robotics, in Finland, was founded in 2007 and has several systems already in the field (see its video above). But, costing more than $1 million a time, Horowitz believes they’re expensive for the average U.S. municipality. “We need to target a lower price point,” he says.

AMP has two prototypes, which it hasn’t yet released to the public. It’s hoping to start pilot projects with customers soon. One day, hopefully, it can stop the injuries in recycling plants.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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