During Fall 2013, the Charlotte Green Initiative (CGI) granted $5,000 in funding for the creation of RecycleBot. The gameplan involves having the environmentally conscious robot at football games to interact with people, although there’s still a ways to go before the prototype makes its appearance.

“We may have something working at the end of this month, but we’re really shooting for the third football game, which is fairly late October to have it actually operational,” said UNC Charlotte engineering professor Dr. James Conrad.

RecycleBot will be able to depose of both recyclables and compostables through two types of technology. The first type is an ultrasonic sensor, which will be able to detect if an item has been placed in front of it. This in turn will turn on a camera, which is hooked up to a Raspberry Pi computer that will identify whether the item is recyclable or compostable.

“By using this Raspberry Pi we can do almost everything with the robot. It’s the heart of the robot,” said UNC Charlotte graduate student Dharmik Mehta.

Two servo motors will then complete the process by tipping the item into the corresponding bin it belongs in.

“This is not going to be a fully autonomous because we need some people to be with it to be able to be there in case things go really nuts,” said Conrad. “Because again, this is a prototype, this is not a commercial product that has gone through extensive testing. However, we will give it GPS coordinates and it will have other sensors (ultrasonic) which will detect if someone steps in front of it so it won’t run over people.”

UNC Charlotte graduate student Vatsal Soni is one of several students working on the robot and is involved in building the GPS navigation system.

From left: XXX XXX, James Conrad and XXX XXX. Photo by: Edward Averette
From left: Dharmik Mehta, James Conrad and Vastal Soni. Photo by: Edward Averette

“As a student, there’s a lot of things to do for the Raspberry Pi computer,” said Soni. “We can learn how to operate it and how to use it for the future aspect to fulfill our requirement for the robot. We are learning so much, doing all these things for RecycleBot.”

In addition to GPS, several microcomputers, ultrasonic sensors and motors, the rectangular bot will also feature unique steering for movement.

“We use a specific type of wheel…that allows it to turn a lot easier than having four wheels that are all straight,” said Conrad. “You can turn one way or the other.”

While RecycleBot is almost ready for game time there are still a few finishing pieces it needs before it can navigate Jerry Richardson Stadium.

“We’re basically building a vehicle and vehicle platform from scratch and we only had one person associated with the mechanical part,” said Conrad. “I’ve used graduate students as the workers for the electrical part, which has worked out well. They have an option where they could work on a particular project and use that project as a demonstration of the work they’ve done. I don’t have anybody like that mechanical-wise.”

Conrad and his team have so far had three mechanical engineers (all of which were undergraduates) work on the robot in conjunction with electrical engineers, but has run out of funds from the $5,000 grant given to his team from CGI for the project.

Although the frame, the bins, and much of the electrical framework is present for the RecycleBot, it still needs features such as the tipping mechanism and a platform for recyclables.

“Building a robotic vehicle takes hundreds of hours,” said Conrad. “I got enough money for 100 hours of mechanical engineer’s time… I have a lot more work to get done. I may be able to move some funding from what we were going to buy for parts, then instead use it for manual labor.”

With the help of a mechanical engineer, Conrad hopes to add a clear plastic skin cover on the robot in order to give people a better idea of how the machine works scientifically, while also encouraging them to recycle. “We have talked to Charlotte Green Initiative and said that we would design this so that it could be used inside the football stadium for football games, but also outside during football games (tailgating) and at basketball games and at the International Festival and some of these other types of events that can go on.”

To stay updated in the progress of RecycleBot, visit CGI’s webpage.

Ed Averette is currently a rising junior, a Sociology major and Journalism minor at UNC Charlotte. He can be contacted at eaverett@uncc.edu.