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Human-robot teams take the drudgery out of sorting trash

Engadget Engadget 4/05/2016 Andrew Tarantola
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Think about all the sticky, slimy vile stuff you throw away in a given week. Now multiply that level of gross by everybody in your town. Would you want to have to rummage through all that disgusting detritus to pick out valuable recyclables? Because that's what garbage collection companies have to do every single day, often by hand. Which is why software developer Jodone has developed a robotic surrogate for today's professional trash pickers.

The system leverages a high-def video of the incoming trash line, touchscreen software and robotic arms to eliminate the need for humans to touch trash directly. A human worker watches the video feed to identify various items -- newspapers, glass bottles, tin cans, old batteries, that sort of thing. Once the human spots a recyclable, he swipes the item into a segregated onscreen bin. Then, and this is really cool, a robotic arm down on the trash line interprets that action, reaches into the mess to grab the item and toss it into a separate pile. Basically it's combining a human's superior visual acuity and processing power with the robot arm's immunity to Hepatitis.

According to Jodone's lab tests, this system can enables users to pick up to eight times the amount of trash -- roughly 2,500 pieces an hour -- than they could alone, with 95 percent accuracy. "We know that robots are great at manual labor—at doing the same thing a million times in a row. But humans are great at problem solving, classification, identification, and dealing with diversity," Jodone CEO Cole Parker told the MIT Tech Review. The Pope/Douglas waste-to-energy facility in Alexandria, Minnesota recently installed this system and is even offering bonuses to workers who can snag more trash than the facility average.

The system currently costs about $150 per ton of recyclables to operate. That's a bit higher than the cost of simply dumping everything into a landfill and hoping for the best, but once Jodone can get this cost on par with straight dumping, expect to see these machines sprout up in waste centers around the country. Heck, just pair this with Volvo's self-emptying trash cans and we'll eliminate the need for human garbage collectors nearly altogether.


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