Technology

Viridor and Sheffield University Undertake Robotics Project

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Viridor has been working with Sheffield University on a robotics project, which it said could have a ‘significant impact’ on plant safety and efficiency.

And, the company’s development manager hopes to have a robot onsite performing a quality control picker function at a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) in the next 12 months.

The recycling and resources company said it has spent two years working with the University on projects which it said have “practical and specific applications.”

Technology

As part of the project, the University and Viridor examined whether robotics or ‘cobotics’ – a combination of robotics but with human intervention – was most appropriate for the task.

According to the company, robotics has been the preferred technology, and Viridor said 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, said: “We are very excited about the next step in this project with the University of Sheffield.

“When we started working with the university, waste companies were not really working with academia in this way, but their experience in automation, robotics and sensing technologies made this an obvious partnership.”

Target material

Viridor and the university also believe the work has important health and safety applications for staff due to the diverse range of materials in the waste stream, such as lithium batteries and gas canisters. And, the company said it has the potential to ‘significantly reduce’ costly plant damage.

“A significant part of the work has focused on sensor technology to identify individual components in a complicated mix of materials and more specifically identify non target materials from the feed into the MRF to avoid damaging the facility,” Viridor said.

Mr Du Pree Thomas, explained: “It is not enough for the robot to simply 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 such projects 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.”

Challenge

According to Viridor, that understanding is emphasised by the Sheffield Robotics team in its latest report to the company: “Effective and efficient separation of materials lies at the heart of the recycling plant.”

University of Sheffield senior research fellow Dr Jonathan Aitken, 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.

“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.”  

Methods

“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.”

Dr Aitken added that coupling intelligent sensing with robotics would increase the efficiency and recovery of the valuable recyclates by providing more information at source.

“This will enable a more fluid process that both maximises the recovery, and the health and safety of plant operators.”

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