Rise of the machines: ZenRobotics

Following its success internationally, artificial intelligence designed by ZenRobotics is poised to support the Australian waste sector with efficiencies and higher fraction purity.

The fear of robots taking over society in some dystopian future is a cliché-ridden notion that harks back to the 80s Terminator franchise.

Almost 40 years on from the iconic production, robots by and large still serve as an adjunct, rather than a threat to human existence.

While some modern futurists like Yuval Noah Harari go as far as to suggest human consciousness as we know could change over the century thanks to robots, this reality is far from the contemporary.

For example, futurist Bernard Marr argues critical thinking, creativity, strategy, technology management, installation and upkeep are skills robots can’t do well.

While some can be resistant to change, robots are poised to support the recycling workforce by taking menial tasks off their hands and creating new jobs.

That’s according to Juha Meiskonen, Head of Sales at ZenRobotics. Based in Helsinki, Juha has seen that in many cases, obsolescence of roles like picking empower those workers to take on more challenging tasks such as site management.

“Repetitive tasks are often more suited to a machine where the downsides of being a human could be getting tired, not being focused or being in a dangerous situation,” Juha explains.

Based in Queensland’s southeast, Robots in Waste has been working with ZenRobotics since its 2014 inception. ZenRobotics was founded in 2007 and entered the waste sector around 2010. The company has been most active in Europe since then, but expanded to Asia and North America around 2014-15.

Robots in Waste, which distributes ZenRobotics and other technologies locally, is now looking at accelerating its presence in the Australian market.

In traditional industrial automation, robots operate in defined, structured environments. In waste treatment, the process is less predictable, with complex waste stream compositions and harsh working environments such as temperature changes, dust and dirt.

Artificial intelligence (AI), however, has changed the game. According to ZenRobotics, unlike car manufacturing, waste processing is a chaotic, unstructured environment that is extremely difficult to automate. The company was pleased to take on the challenge, working to develop a robot that could match, if not exceed, human perception.

In 2010, ZenRobotics pioneered its own AI product based on the latest research in the field. In developing the solution, ZenRobotic’s ZENBRAIN hardware was designed to be flexible and adaptive to recognise, grab and sort objects from the waste stream. ZENBRAIN can not only perform complex tasks, but also handle collisions.

Juha says that what is unique about ZenRobotics is the company developed its own machine learning algorithms.

“Robotics in manufacturing requires a homogenous knife, clean environment and we wanted to apply the same efficiency of robotics to an industry which is more chaotic and heterogeneous.”

This, he says, is where the ZenRobotics system was developed to readily identify and recover objects, much like a human can with hand-eye coordination.

Juha says that initial development and testing involved training the robot to recognise new fractions. Now, operators can do this at their own accord, training the robot to recognise fractions in a similar fashion to a human.

Over the years, ZenRobotics expanded to Europe, Asia and North America. While Robots in Waste deployed a ZenRobotics system in Australia in 2017, it is hoping to increase this significantly and has already received extensive interest from a range of companies.

In addition to providing materials recovery facilities with increased efficiency and productivity, the machine can be run 24/7 with constant speed.

Additionally, the sophisticated technology aims to improve the purity of end fractions with sensors and AI software allowing for versatile sorting capabilities. Juha says this may come in handy when end users need to increase their purity to achieve a better price per tonne. End users can train the robot to sort specific objects, not just materials.

AI and digitisation also produces more data on the waste, which may help companies improve and monitor their operations. Robots in Waste’s Jim Duncan says that the digitisation of waste will help drive robotics forward, as the recycling sector moves from a feeling-based operation to a data-driven philosophy.

Two products that have proved popular for ZenRobotics internationally are the fast picker, suitable for municipal solid waste, and the heavy picker, ideal for commercial and industrial and construction and demolition waste.

The heavy picker uses the company’s own robot design with AI software that can be easily upgraded and in-house support guarantees a safe investment. Optional features comprise sorting belt speed control adaptable to the waste stream in addition to a feed rate control for upstream feeding and dosing. On top of replacing manual processes, the heavy picker can replace excavator hours, adjust waste sorting tasks and provide hybrid sorting.

The Fast Picker’s robust and compact design is suitable for demanding environments with an efficient solution for quality control. A single robot arm can simultaneously sort four different fractions to achieve up to 98 per cent purity.

The sensor includes NIR, 3D, hi-res, an imaging metal detector and VIS sensors. With a single sorting bay, the Fast Picker can be retrofitted to existing materials recovery facilities for different conveyor widths and multi-lane conveyors.

Software upgrades will also help future-proof the technology to work with various sensors into the future. With this in mind, Jim remains excited about the prospect of revolutionising the recycling sector with faster and smarter machinery.

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