Grabby MIT robot sorts recycling by squeezing it

Even a silver-colored paper cup can't fool the tactile sensors on this MIT CSAIL robot.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
MIT CSAIL; video screenshot by CNET

Sorting recycling can be a hellish task. Humans stand around a conveyor belt, grabbing plastic, paper and metal and putting it in its proper place. It's dirty, hard and potentially dangerous. Sounds like a perfect job for a robot.

MIT's Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) is developing RoCycle, a robot that can sort recyclables using sensors in its soft teflon "hand." The below video shows the robot in action as it grasps boxes, cans and cups.

Watch this: Watch this robot identify and sort recycled goods

The bot handles an object and squishes it to determine its size and stiffness. Embedded tactile sensors help RoCycle determine what material it's dealing with. The robo-arm part of the system then pops the can, paper cup or other item into the correct bin.

"Compatible with any robotic arm, RoCycle was found to be 85% accurate at detecting materials when stationary, and 63% accurate on an actual simulated conveyor belt," MIT CSAIL says.

RoCycle is built to withstand the messy work. The hand survived getting scraped by a sharp lid and weathered a series of needle punctures with minimal damage.

Though RoCycle is already pretty impressive, as the video shows, it could do better. The research team plans to meld RoCycle's sense of touch with video input from cameras to improve sorting accuracy. 

While we contemplate what increased automation means for the future of human work, sorting recycling could be one dirty job we gratefully hand off to our robot underlings.

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