Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are working with Apple to develop new ways to disassemble old technology.
This builds on Apple’s existing recycling innovations, including its recycling robots Daisy and Dave. As Apple sought to support research initiatives that reimagine disassembly of devices and recovery of materials, the company worked with CMU’s Biorobotics Lab in the Robotics Institute.
Matt Travers and Howie Choset, co-director of the lab, and their team are designing machine learning models that will enable robots to teach themselves how to disassemble a device they have never seen before.
“We’re building robots, and we’re building AI so that the machine can see any piece of electronics and figure out how to take it apart,” Travers said.
To do this, the team developed a robot that scanned a phone with a laser to create a 3D model. The team then simulated cracks, cases or missing batteries to train the model to recognize the different conditions a device might be in when it arrives at a recycling center.
Apple mentioned Travers and his team’s work in its latest “Environmental Progress Report.” The company said a model typically requires a large amount of data, such as images of a device, to recognize the object and disassemble it.
“Unfortunately, this data is not readily available,” Apple wrote in its report. “This research applies to the concept of domain randomization, by synthetically creating the data real images would provide, to grant robots the ability to recognize a broad, varied stream of [electronic waste] for recycling at scale.”
Apple said the newly developed software will be open-sourced and available for use in other recycling applications. The work is part of Apple’s goal to make its products and packaging using only recycled or renewable materials. It builds on existing innovative solutions at Apple like Daisy and Dave. Daisy disassembles iPhone devices so recyclers can recover more material inside. Dave, Apple’s newest recycling robot, disassembles the Taptic Engine from iPhone to enable the recovery of key materials such as rare earth magnets, tungsten and steel.
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is any discarded product with a battery or plug. A record 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2019, according to the United Nation’s Global E-waste Monitor for 2020. That is a 21% increase over the last five years. The report estimated that by 2030, global e-waste will have doubled from where it was 16 years ago.
The report also found that only 17.4% of e-waste was recycled in 2019, meaning valuable and recoverable materials like gold, silver, copper and platinum — $57 billion worth by conservative estimates — were discarded.
“There’s actually a lot of value in trash,” Travers said. “It’s an area that’s pretty ripe for artificial intelligence and machine learning because there are gobs and gobs of data coming in.”