AI-driven system to increase value of recycling: Victor Dewulf and Peter Hedley named Young Inventors prize 2022 finalists
- Belgian and British innovators Victor Dewulf and Peter Hedley jointly named as one of three finalists of a new prize awarded by the European Patent Office (EPO) for their AI-driven recycling technologies
- Their waste recognition system and robotic sorting arm can increase the proportion of waste that is recycled and make recycling more financially viable
- The system is now being rolled out to recycling facilities in the UK, France, Germany and Italy through their start-up company Recycleye
Munich, 24 May 202 2 - The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that engineers Victor Dewulf and Peter Hedley have been shortlisted for the inaugural Young Inventors prize for their AI-driven waste recognition and robotic sorting technologies. Having started with a treadmill, a camera and a pile of dumpster-dived trash, the two entrepreneurs have turned their intelligent waste sorting system into a promising business, raising millions of euros in funding.
There are two parts to their invention, which recycling facilities can use alone or together: a computer vision system that uses artificial intelligence to accurately identify different types of waste items, and a robotic arm that moves on six axes to autonomously pick out valuable material from a recycling conveyor belt with mixed, low-value waste. The aim is to increase the purity, and therefore the value, of recycled waste bales, boosting the financial incentive to recycle.
"With their twin waste recognition and sorting solutions, Victor Dewulf and Peter Hedley are making a vital contribution to reducing the world's waste and moving towards a circular economy," says EPO President António Campinos, announcing the Young Inventors prize 2022 finalists. "The speed at which they have not just developed these innovations, but also turned them into reality, is remarkable and we look forward to seeing their story unfold."
The Belgian/British inventors are jointly named as one of three finalists of the new Young Inventors prize, which the EPO established to encourage the next generation of inventors. The prize recognises young innovators aged 30 or under who have developed solutions to tackle global problems and help reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The winners of the Young Inventors prize 2022 will be announced at the European Inventor Award virtual ceremony, which will be held on 21 June.
An eye for smart waste management
According to the World Bank, the world generates two billion tonnes of municipal solid waste each year globally and disposal or incineration of this waste can negatively impact the environment. However, sorting waste to enable recycling is highly challenging, with one of the biggest problems being that separating plastic and other valuable waste from low-value, mixed waste is largely manual and can be prohibitively expensive. By automating the process using AI, Dewulf and Hedley aim to increase the proportion of waste that is recycled.
"Our visual recognition system can run on the fastest belts within a waste plant, which our competitors can't do," says Hedley. "The AI prioritisation of waste picking helps us get to about a 300% performance increase - and a 300% increase in the bottom line for our facilities really helps them and their margins."
The computer vision system, called Recycleye Vision, uses a cellphone-quality camera mounted above waste conveyor belts to take 60 photos of the passing waste per second and send them to an algorithm, which ranks them for picking priority. Instructions are then sent to a Recycleye Robotics sorting arm, telling it where to pick up and place the waste. The entire solution can make 55 successful picks from a conveyor belt every minute.
The invention took root in 2018, when Dewulf visited a recycling facility as part of his Master's course in environmental engineering. There, he was shocked to learn about the labour-intensive waste sorting process. Inspired by this and his friend Hedley's Master's course in computer science, Dewulf wrote his thesis on waste sorting automation using computer vision. After graduation, Dewulf and Hedley went their separate ways, but Dewulf's thesis had begun to attract attention. In 2019, Dewulf enlisted Hedley to develop a prototype computer vision-powered waste recognition system.
After training their initial computer vision system in Hedley's parents' garage using a treadmill covered with trash to simulate a recycling conveyor belt, Dewulf and Hedley founded their company, Recycleye, in 2019. The following year, Dewulf and Hedley raised EUR 935 000 (GBP 800 000) in seed investment and started work on developing their robotic sorting arm in partnership with the robotics firm FANUC. By the end of 2020, they had deployed their Recycleye Vision system not just to France but also locally for the UK waste management firms Biffa and Re-Gen - with good results. They have deployed 17 vision systems and five robot arms, with more in the pipeline.
The global smart waste management
market was worth EUR 1.5 billion (USD 1.8 billion) in 2020 and is expected to
reach EUR 5.4 billion (USD 6.5 billion) by 2026.
Notes to the editor
About the inventors
25, was born in Belgium and moved to the UK to do
a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering
at University of Bath, which he completed in 2017,
followed by a Master's degree in Environmental
Engineering with Business Management at Imperial
College London, where he also started a PhD applying computer vision to waste. He
joined Goldman Sachs from 2018-2019. He founded Recycleye with Hedley in 2019
and is currently CEO. Dewulf has won awards
including the BP Centurion Award, the Letitia Chitty Centenary Memorial Prize
and was selected for the 2021 Forbes 30 under 30 list for Social Impact.
Peter Hedley, 27, from the UK, completed a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering at University of Bath in 2017, before going on to a Master's degree in Computer Science at Imperial College London. During his civil engineering studies, he worked as a design engineer for Apex Circuit Design Ltd, leading and training a team to modify car racing track simulation software. After his Master's, Hedley worked on applying computer vision to art galleries. He founded Recycleye in 2019 with Victor Dewulf, where he is currently Chief Technology Officer. Hedley was selected for the 2021 Forbes 30 under 30 list for Social Impact.
About the Young Inventors prize
The European Patent Office established the Young Inventors prize in 2021 to inspire the next generation of inventors. Aimed at innovators aged 30 or below from all around the world, it recognises initiatives that use technology to contribute toward the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. The winner will receive EUR 20 000, the second and third placed finalists will receive EUR 10 000 and EUR 5 000, respectively. An independent jury comprising former finalists of the European Inventor Award selects the finalists and winner. The EPO will confer the inaugural prize at the European Inventor Award virtual ceremony on 21 June. Unlike the traditional Award categories, the Young Inventors prize finalists do not need a granted European patent to be considered for the prize. Read more on the Young Inventors prize eligibility and selection criteria.
About the EPO
With 6 400 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
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