Overview

The high functionality and longevity of todays electronics, such as mobile phones, represents a significant material and value opportuntiy at end of life. Very early in the project it was decided to focus on repurposing mobile phones. The short term contracts offered to mobile phone customers mean that millions of handsets in the UK are discarded before the end of their working life. These handsets are generally in full working order and typically have working lives of around seven years. The increasing complexity of mobile phones make them ideal candidates for use as intelligent systems in non-fashion related applications. The project was designed to scope the feasibility of repurposing mobile phones for use in intelligent systems. Aims & Approach The project identified several deliverables:
  • Identification of suitable mobile phones makes and models for repurposing. There are a wide variety of mobile phones available with different functionality, abilities and software. For large scale repurposing, the mobile phone choice is crucial, choice will depend not only on the end use but the availability of the phones, which will generally become available 12-24 months after the phone was released onto the marketplace.
  • Assessment of the financial, technical and logistic challenges. In addition to selection, understanding the other issues surrounding the use of discarded electronic equipment is an important goal.
  • Assessment of the potential environmental benefits. The identification of the environmental benefits of repurposing end of life electronics is an important part of the justification framework for supporting these activities through demonstration projects.
  • Building a prototype control system using a repurposed mobile phone. Through partnership with a university the project aimed to produce a working prototype that would demonstrate the scope of repurposing mobile phones.

The first three actions were to be conducted as a literature review and industry discussions. Development of the prototype would initially be performed by designing several systems of varying complexity. The overall design would be to develop a relatively simple input output model which would be comparable to a burglar alarm.

Outcomes

The scale of the number of mobile phones entering the waste stream was investigated. Approximately 15 million handsets a year are unwanted,; 3.7 million are recycled or reconditioned and resold either in the UK or abroad. The remaining 11.3 million handsets (75%) are either horded, resold or handed through family and friends. Acquiring these unwanted handsets will be key to the success of any large scale repurposing operation. From the desk-based research the Sony Ericsson P800, a predecessor of the P900, was highlighted as potential candidates for repurposing: it is a popular example of a smart phone that has found widespread use and which is also available in at end of life in good quantities (it is now several years old). As a ‘smart phone’ the P800 also has sufficient processing power and connectivity to enable its facile repurposing. A demonstrator was built that had a repurposed Sony Ericsson P900 mobile phone at its core. This has undergone hardware and software modifications to enable it to communicate via its Bluetooth facility with the input of a control and monitoring interface which in turn communicates via Zigby with a number of remote sensors. These sensors can be of varying design (for example temperature monitoring for central heating control or IR sensors for detecting movement). In the demonstrator, one of these units was a robot. This was used to show that the repurposed phone could be used, via this system, to communicate and control a unit at a remote location, it could just as easily have been moving a CCTV camera, however the use of a robot has certain advantages in capturing the imagination of potential investors and the media. There is a full capability to send and receive information from the sensors through the Zigby controller to the repurposed mobile phone unit. The repurposed mobile phone is also able to send data and messages to any other mobile phone (for example, it could potentially detect that there is someone in your house while you are away on business and phone the police or take a picture of the intruder). A speech facility has also been built in to the unit so that it can tell you what is happening. Future Work A second demonstrator is being produced. It will have a more focussed approach and, at the time of writing, the specific sensor type was still to be decided, but the approach under consideration was to have a number of remote chemical sensors which remain in sleep mode until an incident eg an escape of chemicals occurs. At this point the unit wakes up and sends a message to a central control unit detailing location and levels. In this second unit further use is also being made of a text to speech capability and voice recognition. During the project the aXr has been contacted by a company interested in using repurposed mobile phones for a specific but currently confidential application. It is the intention of aXr to work with this company to take the concept of electronics repurposing forward to a practical application. Dissemination The early results have been presented at both the CRR annual meeting and a Technology seminar on remediation. Now the project is complete, we plan to disseminate further into both the technical and popular media. The development of the movable ‘robot’ demonstrator should allow interest from non-technical sources such as BBC news or the quality broadsheets. We will focus on promoting this work through high profile media organisations. If sufficient interest cannot be developed from these sources we will focus on more technical releases through specialist electronic and environmental media.