Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, will lead a team of researchers at three universities on a project to develop robotics technology that could help recycling centre workers sort waste in a safer, cleaner, and more profitable manner.
Berk Calli, assistant professor in the computer science department and robotics engineering programme at WPI, and eight other researchers will use US$2.5m (£1.9m) in funding from the National Science Foundation’s Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier programme for the four-year project, which will include building a mock recycling line at WPI.
The aim is to develop robotics technology that could be deployed at waste recycling facilities to make them more efficient, but also to improve conditions for workers who sort mixed recyclables by hand.
“What we are trying to do is to introduce robotics technology in such a way that the working conditions of these employees improve,” said Calli. “We approach the problem from a worker-centric view and aim for a human-robot collaboration-based robotic system in which the dirty and dangerous aspect of the job is minimised.
“Such an approach includes understanding the needs and demands of the workers together with the challenges of the recycling industry, and our interdisciplinary team will cover all these aspects while developing the robotic system.”
According to Calli, improving sorting operations at recycling centers is a difficult technological challenge due to objects of different materials, shapes, and appearances moving along sorting lines, often in cluttered piles. As such, researchers aim to develop object-detection technologies, robotic manipulation algorithms, and robotic arms and effectors to help sort waste.
“We need to basically use everything that we have in the state-of-the-art of robotics, plus push it even further so that we can actually start solving the problem,” said Calli, who will lead teams at WPI, Yale University, and Boston University.
Three undergraduate students at WPI are participating in the project by developing a mock sorting line. A master’s degree candidate and two doctoral candidates at WPI will also be involved in the project.