Viridor hopes to have a robot working in one of its MRFs within the next 12 months because of a technological partnership with the University of Sheffield.
The company has spent two years with the Sheffield robotics team developing different robots which could have a significant impact on plant safety and efficiency.
They examined which type of robotics or cobotics – a combination of robotics but with human intervention – was most appropriate, with the former being the preferred choice.
It has not ruled out pursuing the use of hive robots, each seeking out and separating a particular material from a pile of waste, as a future project.
Viridor’s development manager and co-ordinator of technology and innovation, Marcus Du Pree Thomas, hopes to have a robot as a quality control picker at a MRF in the next 12 months.
He said: “It is not enough for the robot simply to recognise an object in the waste stream. It must recognise an object in the way we receive it – so not merely a plastic object but a crushed plastic object, and it also needs to take into account contaminants in and on the object.”
“This is why it is important for Viridor to work on projects like this with teams such as the University of Sheffield. You can only truly understand the extent of challenge by learning more about our business as the university team has done.”
Part of the work has focused on sensor technology to identify individual components in a complicated mix of materials and recognise non-target materials from the feed.
Sheffield senior research fellow Dr Jonathan Aitken, from the department of automatic control and systems engineering, said: “The process of sorting materials in the Viridor waste stream offers a significant challenge within modern robotics, especially to understand the variety of materials into the plant.
“Autonomous robotics offers safe and reliable methods for stopping harmful products before they enter the separation process, preventing significant risk of plant damage.
“Mobile robots can hunt out key markers as waste is received, and indicate potential problems at source, even when they are hidden deep in incoming piles. This will enable a more fluid process that both maximises the recovery, and increases the health and safety of plant operators.”