A robotics scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute will lead a team of researchers at three universities on a project to develop robotics technology that could help recycling center workers sort waste in a safer, cleaner, and more profitable manner.
Berk Calli, assistant professor in the computer science department and robotics engineering program at WPI, and eight other researchers will use $2.5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation’s Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier program for the four-year project, which will include building a mock recycling line at WPI.
The aim is to develop robotics technology that could be deployed at waste recycling facilities to make them more efficient, but also to improve conditions for workers who sort mixed recyclables by hand.
“What we are trying to do is to introduce robotics technology in such a way that the working conditions of these employees improve,” Calli said. “We approach the problem from a worker-centric view and aim for a human-robot collaboration-based robotic system in which the dirty and dangerous aspect of the job is minimized. Such an approach includes understanding the needs and demands of the workers together with the challenges of the recycling industry, and our interdisciplinary team will cover all these aspects while developing the robotic system.”
The U.S. scrap recycling industry accounts for more than 530,000 jobs and generates $117 billion in annual economic activity while handling large amounts of materials. Americans recycle nearly 68 million tons of waste a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.