April 21, 2022
The systems have to be robust and reliable, able to cope with all kinds of adversity, such as poor visibility. "There are many similarities between underwater robotics and the requirements of waste management," says Dr. Szymon Krupinski. No longer dedicated to deep-sea exploration, Krupinski, Arturo Gomez Chavez and Dr. Christian Müller are using their expertise to increase recycling rates. The scientists, who share a common history at Jacobs University Bremen, want to modernize waste management with their startup "WasteAnt" and contribute to waste prevention.
On average, each person in Germany produced 476 kilograms of household waste in 2020. It is incinerated, recycled, landfilled. What exactly arrives at the incineration and sorting plants, the quality and composition of the waste, is usually not known in advance. Organic waste becomes mixed in with non-compostable plastic waste, electronic waste in residual waste. The waste materials have to be sorted out at great expense, and in waste recycling plants they often lead to costly damage and downtime.
Only random checks are made on the quality of the waste. As a rule, this is done manually, and the data is still recorded on paper. WasteAnt succeeds in automating and digitizing this process. "Our system records and evaluates the waste quality. We check the waste stream for interfering materials and thus bring more transparency into the system, while increasing the recycling rate," said Christian Müller. This is made possible by a sophisticated system of sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence, or self-learning software. Müller explained, "we see a plant like a robot: the sensors are the eyes, the software is the brain."
The team came together at Jacobs University Bremen, where WasteAnt is also based. They focused their research and studies in the area of robotics and engineering. Christian Müller earned his doctorate in Smart Systems at Jacobs University, Arturo Gomez Chavez is about to complete his in Cognitive Systems and Processes at Jacobs University. And Szymon Krupinski had graduated from Jacobs University in 2005 with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Ten years later, he returned as a scientist and university lecturer because he was attracted to the research.
The three were united by their interest in underwater robotics as well as ecological issues, and they were determined to establish something of their own. "We asked ourselves: Where can we sustainably apply our knowledge in robotics and automation with a positive impact on society?" Krupinski recalls. "We came up with the waste industry very quickly because artificial intelligence hardly plays a role in it yet," adds Gomez Chavez.
In 2019, the trio made it to the finals of the Jacobs University Startup Competition. A short time later, they won the Bremen Project Pitch Competition hosted by the regional utility company, swb, in the recycling category. The breakthrough came last year: Since June 2021, WasteAnt has been funded by the EXIST program of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate, which supports start-ups with a scientific background.
At swb, their prototype has been running for some time. To be able to install this, occasional visits to the waste bunker of the waste incineration plant were part of the process. Protected by overalls and face masks, the task was to generate data from which the Artificial Intelligence can learn and gather data. In the meantime, they have been able to test the system with two other customers. "We get a lot of positive feedback," Krupinski says.
In November of last year, the three founded WasteAnt as company and are now focusing full-time on their startup. Maximilian Storp, an expert in business and strategy development, has joined the team. More team members are to follow. Currently, they are negotiating with financial investors and new customers. "By the end of the year, we want to offer and sell a standardized product," said Gomez Chavez. But they're not just pondering about growth. For example, they are also thinking about visualizing regional waste on a map so that disposal companies can make predictions, plan better and recycle more.
How has their relationship with waste changed since they started WasteAnt? "On a personal level, you become more sensitive in dealing with your own waste," Christian Müller explained, "and the more we dealt with the topic, the more we realized: waste is an important resource."
Tel.: +49 151/5191 7270
maximilian.storp [at] wasteant.com
This text is part of the series "Faces of Jacobs," in which Jacobs University introduces students, alumni, professors, and staff. More episodes can be found at www.jacobs-university.de/faces.