April 17, 2018 - NBC News
APR in the News
How robots are reshaping one of the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs
Sorting trash is a dirty, dull, and dangerous job. Recycling workers are more than twice as likely as other workers to be injured on the job, and stubbornly high fatality rates make refuse and recyclable material collection one of the nation's most dangerous occupations.
But with the rise of artificial intelligence, sophisticated trash-sorting robots are now turning up at recycling plants across the nation. Guided by cameras and computer systems trained to recognize specific objects, the robots' arms glide over moving conveyor belts until they reach their target. Suction cups or oversized tongs attached to the arms snag cans, glass, plastic containers, and other recyclable items out of the rubbish and flick them into nearby bins.
Glide, grab, flick: every second or so, on average, the arms identify a new target and pluck it out of the pile.
The robots — most of which have come online only within the past year — are just as accurate as human workers and up to twice as fast. With continued improvements in the bots' ability to spot and extract specific objects, they could become a formidable new force in the effort to divert tens of millions of tons of recyclable materials from landfills or incinerators every year.
"It's still very early days," said John Standish, technical director of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, a trade group in Washington, D.C. "But I'm very, very optimistic for the future."
New garbage-sorting bots are as reliable as humans and much faster. "It's still very early days," said John Standish, technical director of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, a trade group in Washington, D.C. "But I'm very, very optimistic for the future."