c-Trace Develops Mobile Inspection System for Organic Waste Disposal

June 18, 2024
System uses AI, machine vision, to identify contaminants in organic household waste.

c-trace GmbH (Bielefeld, Germany), an IT company that specializes in automation solutions for the waste disposal industry, has developed an inspection system that identifies contaminants in organic waste before it is transported to be re-used or recycled.

The system, called c-detect, consists of cameras mounted on movable arms outside as well as in the collection chamber—known as the pour chamber—of a waste disposal truck and hardwired to a laptop computer loaded with AI-enabled software. The system is designed to inspect organic waste bins prior to dumping their contents into the truck’s pour chamber. The system also inspects the pour chamber as the bin is emptied.

“Germany has regulations addressing quality of biowaste. So, while collecting, or even sorting, the material needs to be really good,” Jan Birkhold, a sales engineer with c-trace, says. “Contaminants in biowaste, especially plastics, cause high costs and make recycling time consuming, or even impossible.”

According to Umwelt Bundesamt (Dessau-Roßlau, Germany), Germany’s federal environmental protection agency, organic waste is the largest separately collected waste stream of all municipal waste, with around 15 million tonnes (one tonne is a metric ton, or 1,000 kg) of biodegradable waste treated annually in composting or fermenting plants. And, starting May 1, 2025, a Umvelt Bundesamt regulation will go into effect mandating that waste from organic waste bins to be delivered to composting or fermentation facilities may contain no more than 3%, by weight, of non-organic, non-recyclable matter such as plastics.

Typically, such inspections have been done by human workers, specifically, waste disposal employees assigned to a truck working a route in a town or city. As the truck approaches a bin for disposal, the employee does a visual inspection of the bin to see if there are materials that should not be included with organic waste, such as plastic items. If there are contaminants in the bin, they will not empty it into the truck.

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How the Mobile, AI-Assisted Inspection System Works

The c-detect system consists of four IDS Imaging Development Systems GmbH (Obersulm, Germany) uEye GV-5280FA-C-Q 5MPixel industrial cameras. Two cameras are deployed at the end of two movable arms that are mounted above the opening to the pour chamber of a waste disposal truck. Two more cameras are installed inside the pour chamber. The cameras are hardwired to a computer that is loaded with AI-enabled software designed and written by c-trace. The laptop is installed onboard the truck, in the operator’s cab.

The system can also identify a customer through RFID tags installed in each waste disposal bin.

Typically, a waste disposal truck has a two-person crew; one drives and monitors the computer; the other retrieves each bin, rolls it into position to be inspected and emptied, and opens the lid of the bin.  The truck, equipped with an automatic lift and dump system, will lift the bin while the two cameras mounted above the pour chamber opening scan the open bin for any contaminants and transmit the image data to the laptop. The system analyzes the images using the AI-enabled software. If contaminants are detected, c-detect will automatically stop the automated emptying process and the bin will be returned to the curb, unemptied.

If no contaminants are initially detected, the bin is emptied into the pour chamber of the truck. Two more cameras mounted inside the pour chamber record the contents of the bin as it is dumped into the chamber; these images are also transmitted to the laptop and analyzed via the AI-enabled software.

Birkhold notes that once the pour is underway, it will not be halted, nor will the waste be taken back out of the truck chamber if the system detects contaminants during the pour. However, if contaminants are detected during the transfer of waste from a bin to the truck’s pour chamber, the RFID tag in the bin identifies the customer and an image of the waste material with contaminants is saved.

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Challenges and Future Plans

A major challenge was to develop a system that can effectively and reliably operate in real time in harsh conditions, Birkhold says. Vibration is an issue; waste disposal trucks can be rough riding vehicles equipped with many moving parts and heavy machinery. Moisture is also a significant issue, not only due to weather conditions but also because of condensation. This can make capturing clear images difficult.

c-trace was able to develop a robust, embedded system. For example, the cameras, which are IP67 rated, are also housed in aluminum protective containers and securely mounted to mitigate vibration and moisture issues. They are also hardwired, rather than wireless.

The system was successfully tested in 2022 on a city of Bielefeld, Germany waste disposal vehicle, according to c-trace. Since then, other municipalities, including the cities of Bremen and Kleve, Germany have ordered c-detect systems for some of their waste disposal vehicles, according to c-trace.

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About the Author

Jim Tatum | Senior Editor

VSD Senior Editor Jim Tatum has more than 25 years experience in print and digital journalism, covering business/industry/economic development issues, regional and local government/regulatory issues, and more. In 2019, he transitioned from newspapers to business media full time, joining VSD in 2023.

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