Phone box

A high-tech kiosk that pays consumers for old mobile phones begins trials in the US as its developers gear up for mass production. Dave Wilson reports

Thousands of us have old mobile phones tucked away in our drawers at home. Indeed, by some estimates, the number of such devices could be as high as one billion, with an estimated value of as much as £7.5bn if they were all to be recycled.

Presently, however, consumers that wish to dispose of their old phones have limited options – while they can certainly sell them to others, or to recycling firms over the Internet, both processes are still very time consuming and result in delayed financial gratification.

Now, however, engineers at California-based ecoATM have developed a more elegant solution – a kiosk called the Automated eCycling Station, which can be used directly to collect mobile phones for recycling while remunerating the consumer on the spot.

According to Mark Bowles, founder and director of ecoATM, the disposal process is extremely straightforward. Through use of a touch-screen interface, a consumer is requested to place a phone into a small inspection chamber at the front of the machine. Once inside, a camera connected to a PC-based computer-vision system captures an image of the phone, which it then compares with a database of 4,000 models to find a match.

The kiosks can automatically erase personal data off the phone

Once a match has been found, the system then selects a suitable USB cable that can be connected to the phone from a selection of 20 cables housed within the machine. Through use of a robotic arm, controlled by a National Instruments Compact Rio system, the cable is fed through a small aperture in the back of the inspection chamber, which then opens so that the consumer can connect the phone to it.

’With the cable connected, the computer-vision system once again captures an image of the phone, which it compares to an image of a pristine version of the same model contained in the memory of the machine. By mathematically subtracting one image from the other, the system is then capable of determining any damage to the phone such as a broken LCD, scratches or missing keys,’ said Bowles.

Simultaneously, the phone itself is electronically interrogated through the USB connector. Data such as the phone’s serial number, make and model are collected to provide verification that the vision system has identified the phone correctly. Some rudimentary tests are also performed on the electronics in the phone, to ensure that key functions are working properly.

The price that the phone is worth, based on any damage it has incurred and how well it functions electronically, can then be evaluated by a second PC within the system.

A camera captures an image of the phone, which it then compares with a database of 4,000 models

’To determine the exact value of an individual phone, each one of the phones contained within the system’s 4,000-phone database has been categorised into eight different grades – one end of the spectrum represents a perfect unit, while the other extreme represents one that is extremely damaged,’ said Bowles.

The company itself does not set the pricing for each one of the eight potential variants from the 4,000 phones that it can identify. Instead, the pricing data, which is contained on a large central database, are updated on a day-to-day basis by the buyers of the mobile phones, who understand the criteria through which the system grades the value of the phones. The kiosks themselves update their pricing structure regularly via a network, through which they can interrogate the central database.

The best price retrieved for the phone is then presented to the consumer. If it is accepted, the machine offers to erase any personal data on the phone through the cable. Once this is complete, the USB cable is retracted through the back of the chamber, disconnecting it from the phone as it does so. The Compact Rio system then pivots the chamber floor and drops the phone into a bin below.

’In mall locations, a built-in cash dispenser would then provide the consumer with the cash value of the phone. If the machine were situated in a retailer environment, it could print out a store-credit voucher that the customer could use to purchase other items in the store. Alternatively, a consumer could choose to donate the money to charity,’ said Bowles.

After two years of development, the kiosks are presently being trialled across several western US states in a process that will enable the engineers at ecoATM to refine the technologies in the system to the point at which the machines can finally go into mass production.

After that, the company plans to deploy a network of machines in consumer electronics and handset retailers across the US, to bring those millions of dormant phones out of household drawers and back into the recycling stream where they belong.

design essentials

The key facts to take away from this article

  • Old mobile phones could have a collective value of £7.5bn if recycled
  • ecoATM has developed a kiosk that automates the phone-recycling process
  • This uses a camera and USB cable to assess the model and condition
  • A computer uses this data to find the best price it can offer in exchange