On a freezing January night in 2008, Jufo Peltomaa was at his home in Helsinki watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel. On the television screen an old B52 Bomber was being crushed and dumped in front of a large group of workers, who proceeded to manually sort through the airplane detritus with their bare hands. As he watched the bored workers slowly pick out bits of scrap metal from the dusty factory floor, an idea came to Peltomaa.
He immediately sent a message to his two colleagues, Tuomas Lukka and Harri Valpola, proposing a plan that would drive the course of their working lives for the next seven years.
"Immediately I noticed two things," Jufo tells IBTimes UK. "Firstly the work has to be very dangerous with the dust, microbes, poisonous materials, asbestos and whatnot. Secondly, it was exactly what we had been looking for for our company.
"It was a perfect match, so even at that very late hour I sent a 'Eureka!' type of mail to the other founders saying that I knew what the company will do in the future. They answered something like 'Yeah, let's do it!' and 'Sounds super-cool!', so we did it."
Revolution in recycling
Last month Peltomaa's vision finally came to fruition, as a recycling centre on the outskirts of his hometown opened in a small industrial park. Tonnes of construction and demolition waste was brought into the warehouse and three workers were placed by the conveyor belt, ready to sort through the rubble.
As the conveyor belt rumbled into life and the first load of rubbish began to make its way towards the workers, Peltomaa, Lukka and Valpola knew they were about to witness a revolution in recycling.
For the first time, waste was to be sorted by artificially intelligent robots.
What Peltomaa and his colleagues had conceived was the ZenRobotics Recycler, or ZRR, capable of replacing up to 15 human waste sorters while at the same time eliminating the risks of hazardous dust and chemical exposure that comes with such work.
At a rate of seven million items a year, each robot is currently employed to distinguish and sort between pieces of wood, metal and stone from construction and demolition waste.
A range of sensors - including metal detectors, X-ray machines and 3D laser scanners - analyse the waste as it passes along the conveyor belt in a manner that's more efficient and comprehensive than a human is capable of. The data collected from the sensors is then processed by the artificial intelligence, which then controls the robotic arms to pick through the materials and sort them in to the correct containers.
With the technology the ZRR features, ZenRobotics CEO Juho Malmberg, who joined the company in 2012, believes that the potential impact of the robots is vast.
"The robots aren't limited by the type of materials they can sort," Malmberg told IBTimes UK at a recent visit to the Helsinki recycling centre. "There are a lot of possibilities to be able to enhance the system and to do even more detailed sorting. I feel we're on the cusp of the robotic revolution in recycling."
Costing around €500,000 (£402,000) for the whole setup, Malmberg believes that waste management centres could expect to recoup the initial investment in about two years.
Only 20% of waste recycled worldwide
In 2013, roughly one third of all solid waste came from construction and demolition sites. In the European Union alone, this accounted for almost one billion tonnes. However, according to Eurostat Statistics, only 20% of waste worldwide is being recycled.
"If you consider that the amount of solid waste generated in the EU is three billion tonnes, it's huge," Malmberg said. "And then you consider that the North American potential is the same as the EU, while Asia is even higher. We hope to help this with the construction of intelligent robots."
ZenRobotics already has customers in Finland, Holland and France, and is expecting to break into the UK market by the end of the year.
"We showed off the technology at the Recycling and Waste Management Exhibition in Birmingham last year and received a lot of interest and positive feedback," Malmberg said.
"Everyone agrees that robots must be the future of waste management, but what we're saying is that it's happening here already today - you just have to come and see it."