Robots Sort Recycling, Detect If An Object Is Paper, Metal Or Plastic.

Every year trash companies sift through an estimated 68 million tons of recycling, which is the weight equivalent of more than 30 million cars. A key step in the process happens on fast-moving conveyor belts, where workers have to sort items into categories like paper, plastic and glass. Such jobs are dull, dirty, and often unsafe, especially in facilities where workers also have to remove normal trash from the mix. With that in mind, a team led by researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has developed a robotic system that can detect if an object is paper, metal, or plastic.

The team’s “RoCycle” system includes a soft Teflon hand that uses tactile sensors on its fingertips to detect an object’s size and stiffness. Compatible with any robotic arm, RoCycle was found to be 85 percent accurate at detecting materials when stationary, and 63 percent accurate on an actual simulated conveyer belt. (Its most common error was identifying paper-covered metal tins as paper, which the team says would be improved by adding more sensors along the contact surface.)


Our robot’s sensorized skin provides haptic feedback that allows it to differentiate between a wide range of objects, from the rigid to the squishy,” says MIT Professor Daniela Rus, senior author on a related paper that will be presented in April at the IEEE International Conference on Soft Robotics (RoboSoft) in Seoul, South Korea. “Computer vision alone will not be able to solve the problem of giving machines human-like perception, so being able to use tactile input is of vital importance.”

A collaboration with Yale University, RoCycle directly demonstrates the limits of sight-based sorting: It can reliably distinguish between two visually similar Starbucks cups, one made of paper and one made of plastic, that would give vision systems trouble.