Robots and recycling unite in Denver
Alpine Waste uses artificial intelligence to boost productivity
Founded in 2015 by Matanya Horowitz, Boulder-based AMP Robotics creates robotic systems that can dramatically reduce the cost of identifying and separating recyclable materials from “single stream” recycling – an onerous and sometimes dangerous process that has been plagued by high costs and staff turnover rates.
AMP recently rolled out the Cortex, its first major robotic sorter at a Denver facility owned by Alpine Waste and Recycling. Nicknamed Clarke, the robot uses artificial intelligence to pick up and separate cartons from other recyclable materials. “He” has even learned to recognize common product logos as a means for speeding up the sorting process.
Although Clarke has only been in operation since late last year, if he’s anything like the typical robots AMP develops, he’ll be on track to help local recycling facilities cut sorting costs by 50 percent.
What are the benefits of robotically sorting recyclable materials as opposed to other methods?
The robotic systems developed by AMP help fill a number of needs for recycling facilities. First, they are available at a lower cost, and provide a lower throughput, than most existing equipment. This means facilities can target lower volume materials that would not normally justify a large piece of equipment.
Additionally, the robots are continually learning from experience. Machine learning algorithms at the core of the system continue to improve over time, leading to ever-improving quality, as well as the ability to identify and sort new packaging as it is introduced.
The robotic systems are also making facilities safer, since we often find dangerous materials inside the recycling bin – hypodermic needles, diapers, road-kill and knives, etc. These hazards are not harmful to the robotic system, and it is capable of identifying and warning nearby human sorters about these hazards.
What are the next steps for this technology – will it expand to sort other materials and other facilities?
The AMP Cortex is targeted towards several niche products such as cartons and plastics for its preliminary introduction, but the system has been built from the ground up to identify all material in a recycling facility. AMP is rolling out systems and new robotic grippers that to tackle progressively larger fractions of the waste stream, already seeing great preliminary results with electronic waste and construction and demolition material.
What impact will this technology have on jobs in the industry?
A fundamental challenge in recycling facilities is that there is a high rate of employee turnover. Many facilities have trouble holding on to their people, and as a result they run under-staffed. Facilities are eager to use robots to provide a baseline sorting capacity, and actually look at expanding the material volumes they can accept.
AMP systems also collect a tremendous amount of data that believed to be helpful for facilities to continually improve their operations. We aspire to create a new kind of position within the recycling facility – the material stream analyst – that leverages the data gathered to improve efficiency throughout the facility.
What kind of impact could this technology have on the recycling industry broadly?
First and foremost, the system can change the fundamental economics behind the materials sorting process. By lowering the cost of automated sorting equipment, providing the ability to automate with no retrofit, and by increasing the quality of material that can be sold on commodity markets, the goal is to shift the cost-benefit analysis of recycling material.
Furthermore, as the equipment is well suited to tackle lower-throughput materials, the hope is to open new revenue streams for facilities that would have been a challenge to embrace previously.
Are there other companies in Colorado helping move recycling innovation forward?
Alpine Waste and Recycling has been a fantastic partner in helping AMP bring the Cortex from the lab into the recycling facility. There is so much that can only be learned with hands on experience, and Alpine has at every step worked with AMP to find the weaknesses and strengths of the system, and improve it so that it can be the right tool for the industry.