Sunday, June 24, 2012

Aware 2, Meet Tomra T-820

A recent post reported on a camera, Aware 2, able to produce a photograph with 1 billion pixels of information—the chief purpose of which is to survey the world for purposes of defense or criminal investigations. On a short walk this morning, a discarded can on a lawn reminded me of returning cans at Kroger. It is done by feeding a machine. A belt takes the can, causes it to revolve very briefly before a camera. The imprinted image is interpreted; if the can is returnable in our location under Michigan laws—and presumably the band is also sold by Kroger—the can continues on and is swallowed; a display on the face of the machine credits me with 10 cents per can. If the can is persona non grata, why then the can comes back again and a message informs me of its rejection.

I got to thinking. Here is the same technology I saw in Aware 2: optical sensors interfaced with a computer. But who makes the object that—I discovered later—is called a Reverse Vending Machine; lets abbreviate that to RVM. The answer is (trumpets) Tomra.

Quite an impressive company. It is headquartered in Asker, Norway, began in 1971, and a year later it had already produced its first RVM. In 2011 the company had world-wide sales of 3,690 million Norway Krone ($619 million). Furthermore, it had expanded into all manner of recycling and sorting—always involving the same technology: optics and computing. Tomra’s machines can sort potatoes, lemons, meat, stone, and trash collected from a football stadium (it takes about 15 minutes to render the vast collection of a football game’s detritus into paper, plastic, metal, and other more or less homogeneous wastes). Tomra is big in the mining business sorting ores, in the food industry, and, of course, in can and bottle recycling.

I am impressed. I used to run the Recycling Division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In fact I was that division’s first director. Long ago and far away. Sorting was then strictly a matter of gravity and of magnets, the magnets able to retrieve the metals, ramps and shaking sorting rock and other debris by size and density. No sign yet of optics anywhere—except for human eyes staring at a moving belt where people sorted waste by hand. Now technology can do it faster and better. People, of course, are still needed—but in such sophisticated roles as designing machines, lenses, and in programming computers.

The most ambiguous feelings always arise when I come across something like this and my mind comes to a focus. Here is a high art made for a wasteful age—in which we use hair-thin aluminum to package sugary drinks that make us obese. They’re elegantly processed by wondrous machines produced by that can-do, enterprising Norwegian spirit…
Image of the T-820 courtesy of Wikipedia Commons (link).

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