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Get inside the mind of workers for robotic systems of the future

A sorting line made for the Everyday Robots Project by Google Inc's X Moonshot Factory.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in the US has received a grant of US$ 2.5 million (EUR 2.2 million) to develop cutting-edge robotics technology. The R&D project will run for four years and is meant to make recycling centres ‘safer, cleaner and more profitable’.

Yale University and Boston University are collaborating with WPI on the innovative project, which is led by robotics engineering expert Berk Calli. Initially, the researchers and scientists will replicate a recycling line on campus.

Calli says the main objective is a solution that not only makes recycling plants more efficient but also improves conditions for workers who sort mixed recyclables by hand.

Sorting such scrap is tricky because materials with different shapes and appearances often move along lines in cluttered piles. This calls for new object-detection technologies, robotic manipulation algorithms and robotic arms and effectors to drive sorting to the next level.

‘What we are trying to do is to introduce robotics technology in such a way that the working conditions of these employees improve,’ Calli says. ‘We are approaching 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 minimised. Such an approach includes understanding the needs and demands of the workers together with the challenges of the recycling industry. Our interdisciplinary team will cover all these aspects while developing the robotic system.’

The investment from the US National Science Foundation has been granted under its Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier programme.

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