As the old adage says, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” And in an age when technology is changing at an unprecedented rate, that old saying is truer than ever. Looking to give consumers an easy way to recycle their unwanted mobile phones and MP3 players while also providing a cash incentive, ecoATM has developed an automated kiosk that can differentiate between various devices and provide monetary compensation on the spot.

Beginning as a wooden-box prototype that required a person on hand to ensure fair trades, the ecoATM can now identify individual electronic devices from a database containing images of more than 4,000 devices with 97.5 percent accuracy. The system also learns from any mistakes made when attempting to identify a device and grades the condition of a device to help determine its market value.

"We are now able to tell the difference between cracked glass on a phone, which is an inexpensive fix, versus a broken display or bleeding pixels, which is generally fatal for the device," says ecoATM co-founder and National Science Foundation (NSF) principal investigator Mark Bowles. "We were warned by leading machine-vision experts that solving the inspecting/grading problem – with an infinite variety of possible flaws – was an impossible problem to solve. Yet with our NSF support, we solved it through several years of research and development, trial and error, use of artificial intelligence and neural network techniques."

The process starts with a visual scan when the user places their device into the ecoATM kiosk. The kiosk will identify the device model and robotically provide the appropriate connector cable for linking the device to the ecoATM network. However, users should remember to erase all personal information stored on the device before using the system.

Once the device is connected to the ecoATM network, its value is determined based on the company’s real-time, worldwide, pre-auction system. In this system, a network of buyers bids in advance on the more than 4,000 available devices across the eight possible condition grades. The whole process only takes a few minutes and users have the option of receiving cash or store credit, or donating all or part of the trade to one of several charities.

The company says some newer model phones will fetch up to US$300, although obviously, most devices will be priced much lower. However, even older model phones will see you walking away with at least one dollar. But the monetary incentive isn’t necessarily the biggest benefit of the ecoATM.

With around 75 percent of devices collected by the ecoATMs finding their way to a new home and the remainder recycled in an environmentally responsible manner to reclaim any rare earth metals and keep toxic components out of landfills, the environment also benefits.

Following a 2009 trial of the ecoATM machine in Omaha, Nebraska, the company received support from the NSF in 2010, with follow-on funding in 2011 from Coinstar, Claremont Creek Ventures and Silicon Valley Bank to launch the first kiosks. This month saw kiosks deployed in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and other areas along the east coast. The company plans to have more than 300 kiosks operating in shopping malls and large stores across the U.S. by the end of the year.

The video below shows how the ecoATM works.

Sources: NSF, ecoATM