Up Front

Robot vision

Robots have the ability to transform Australia’s waste and recycling industry in the coming decades.

Robots have inspired human imagination for decades, with science fiction writers exploring the endless possibilities of automation in film and literature.

Some depictions are bleak dystopias, such as the Terminator franchise where humanity is at war with the machines. Others explore the possible benefits of robotic technology and how it can improve our lives.

In 2008, Pixar released the light hearted film WALL-E, a cautionary tale that warns against consumerism and the misuse of the planet’s natural resources. The story follows a waste compactor robot that spends its time on Earth managing waste.

While it may seem like the far-off realm of fantasy, automation is much closer than some might think, as it is already being implemented in industries across the globe.

To help shape national policy in preparation for this technology, the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision released Australia’s first robotics roadmap.

Leaders in industry, academia and government across key sectors of the Australian economy helped shape the roadmap, which quotes an AlphaBeta report showing automation could deliver a $2.2 trillion dividend to the economy over the next 15 years if businesses are encouraged to accelerate their uptake of new technologies.

Sue Keay, Centre Chief Operating Officer, says robots also offer significant safety benefits for the waste sector.

“Automated technology allows workers to remove themselves from potentially dangerous areas. This is particularly useful for tasks which involve the movement of heavy materials,” she explains.

“By allowing robots to handle the more dangerous and dull work, there is a much lower chance of injury on the job. 

“Automated technology has the capability to sort through recyclable materials faster than a person can, which allows processes to become more efficient. This can have flow-on effects such as an improved recycling rate and reducing waste to landfill.”

Sorting technologies are already being used to assist recycling. Notably, electronics manufacturer Apple has designed a robot called Daisy that is able to deconstruct iPhones and separate their components. 

Daisy is able to break down around 200 iPhone devices in an hour, separating the materials to make recycling them significantly easier. According to Apple, for every 100,000 iPhones it deconstructs this way, it is able to recover 1900 kilograms of aluminium, 770 kilograms of cobalt and 970 grams of gold.

While sensor technology has become more advanced, there are still some technological obstacles facing robots. In particular, researchers are still attempting to overcome issues involving moving around and manipulating objects.

Sue adds that a significant amount of waste could be saved from landfill if robots were able to identify potential recyclables at the landfill itself.

“Potentially, we could see robots being used at landfill or waste drop-off points which can scavenge through the incoming waste and identify recyclable or valuable materials that can be diverted. Robots could then collect and transport them as well.”

One of the first major implementations of robotics in Australia’s recycling industry was the installation of Finnish company ZenRobotic’s three-armed robot recycler at a material recovery facility in Melbourne. 

The robot sorter uses sensors and artificial intelligence to identify items on a conveyor belt, which are then separated by the robot. This machine can run 24/7 and each gantry is able to pick 3000 objects per hour.

The roadmap defines a robot as an autonomous machine that can move within its physical environment and manipulate objects, and includes-self driving cars.

Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads estimates that 20 per cent of state’s fleet will be autonomous between 2034 and 2045, with that number increasing to 100 per cent between by 2057. This uptake of automated vehicles has the potential to lower transport costs and directly improve productivity in Australia while improving services available to regional areas, according to the roadmap.

Additionally, it found regional waste and recycling facilities would feel the flow-on effects from the reduced transport costs and could decentralise, creating regional technology clusters.

Sue says that while robots do have the potential to affect the job market in Australia, a smooth rollout of robots could actually lead to an increase in jobs. “Development of robotics could potentially make our current jobs safer, more satisfying and creative. With an ageing workforce, our standard of living could be threatened if we aren’t able to keep improving our productivity by 2.5 per cent every year,” she says.

“From our research, we have found that robots seldom replace jobs, and, in fact, create new ones. While they may in the short-term impact the industry, overall there will be a net increase in the amount of jobs.”

Australia is currently ranked 18th in the world for global automation by the International Federation of Robotics, but there is the potential for it to become a leader by encouraging different industries to collaborate.

Sue explains that this technology may be closer to becoming a reality than once thought, although it is difficult to pin down a rollout date.

“We tend to overestimate how much we can achieve in five years and underestimate where we’ll be in 15,” she explains.

“Prototypes are likely to be rolled out within five years, as we already have a lot of the technology required. Now, the industry just needs to fine-tune the manipulation technology and begin implementing robots within all sectors, including waste.”

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