Robots set to touch down in Viridor MRFs after research project

Viridor, one of the UK’s leading recycling, resources and renewable energy companies, hopes to have developed a robot to perform a quality control picker function at one of its materials recovery facilities (MRFs) within the next year.

The news comes after two years of working closely with the University of Sheffield on robotics, cobotics (a combination of robotics but with human intervention) and hive robots: new technologies which could have a significant impact on plant safety and efficiency.

As part of the project, the university and Viridor examined whether robotics or cobotics would be most appropriate for the task.

Robots set to touch down in Viridor MRFs after research project
Viridor’s Development Manager and Co-ordinator of Technology and Innovation, Marcus Du Pree Thomas, meets one of the robots.

Robotics was found to be the preferred technology, but Viridor says it may pursue the use of hive robots – each seeking out and separating a particular material from a pile of waste – as a future project.

Benefits for health and safety

The current project is firmly focused on the waste stream. Containing, as it does, diverse material such as lithium batteries and gas canisters, Viridor and the university also believe the work has important health and safety applications for staff, particularly pertinent given the waste sector’s position as the second most dangerous industry in the UK. They have also reported that 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’s Development Manager and Co-ordinator of Technology and Innovation, Marcus 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.”

Effective separation of materials

This understanding is emphasised by the Sheffield Robotics team in its latest report to Viridor: ‘Effective and efficient separation of materials lies at the heart of the recycling plant.’

It goes on to recognise that the changing nature of the business placed increasing emphasis on ensuring guaranteed levels of quality and that the effective separation of materials needs to be enhanced at all stages to achieve high levels of purity in order to meet the product manufacturers requirements.

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.

“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.”