QinetiQ has developed a machine that can automatically identify and sort recyclable domestic waste into various packaging groups.

By using defence-based technologies, including advanced sensors originally designed for fast jets and tanks, it can reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills.

The integrated nature of the system means that it costs around the same as competitive systems when configured for facilities requiring three material separations but becomes proportionally cheaper for more material types. Fewer people are required to run it and less land is required to establish a facility than for a plant using traditional equipment. An added benefit is that health and safety issues associated with the close proximity of employees to waste are avoided because of the level of automation.

“In order to reclaim many of the more valuable materials from kerbside collections, most recyclable waste is currently hand sorted, which is a slow, time consuming, costly and sometimes a potentially dangerous activity,” explained QinetiQ’s Stephen Takel.

“By automating this process a material reclamation operation can run 24/7, delivering a calculated capacity of over 36,000 tonnes per year resulting in a highly reliable, cost effective, multi-material sorting solution that should greatly assist local authorities in meeting their recycling targets.”

The high-throughput demonstrator integrates many standard commercially available components including conveyors and hoppers along with QinetiQ’s unique sensing, classification and control technologies.

At the feed preparation stage, kerbside collected waste is automatically and evenly supplied at a suitable speed for the sophisticated defence sensors to identify the shape, position and material type of each item on the moving conveyer. QinetiQ’s technologists have used a broadband colour camera, a hyperspectral imager, a metal detecting array and data fusion and classification software to identify and classify the waste items. These are then individually tracked along the conveyer until they reach the appropriate collection bin, where a series of novel compressed air ejectors remove them into containers.

The system is currently programmed to identify a variety of materials including Tetrapak, ferrous and non-ferrous metals and a range of plastics including PET, HDPE, PVC, PP and PS. The patented sensors could also be trained to identify a range of other materials including glass. This means that if a requirement arises to sort additional material types, they can easily be programmed into the system and more sorting stations added.

Having completed the development work for this demonstrator, QinetiQ is now in consultation with a number of local authorities looking to adopt this technology, plus it is exploring ways the technology could be applied in other industries with similar problems. QinetiQ is actively seeking suitable commercial partners to take on the fabrication and installation of systems both in the UK and overseas.