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Robots start to grasp food processing

Advances in robotics make it possible to automate tasks such as processing poultry and vegetables.

IT IS less striking than Deep Blue’s victory over chess champ Garry Kasparov, but Richard van der Linde says that his robotic hand’s mastery at picking up cabbage is something of a milestone for machines.

With the aid of five cameras, plus sensors in its wrist to monitor the resistance it encounters, the three-fingered gripper can carefully pick up a cabbage, reorient it, and place it into a machine that removes the core.

“In industry, only humans can do that at the moment,” says van der Linde.

His company Lacquey, based in Delft, the Netherlands, is working with FTNON, a manufacturer of food-processing equipment, to get the technology ready to go to work inside the giant chillers where today humans process cabbage, lettuce, and other produce for packaging. ­Lacquey is also testing versions for other sorts of jobs, such as packaging tomatoes, peppers, and mangoes.

The company’s progress is an example of how advances in robotic manipulation technology are opening up new jobs for robots in the food-processing business.

Solid, hard, identical objects such as car parts are easy for robots to move around. But delicate, flexible, naturally variable objects such as meat, fruit, and vegetables require much more sophisticated sensing and manipulation.

Interest is driven partly by the potential to cut labour costs, just as in other industries. But food-processing companies also see robotics as a way to increase safety, says Gary McMurray, who leads the Food Processing Technology division at the Georgia Tech Research Institute.

“Anywhere you have people in there handling food, they make mistakes from time to time,” he says. Incidents where meat or vegetables become contaminated with, say, E. coli or Listeria are costly to a food processor.

A 2015 study found that on average, meat recalls wiped $109-million from a public food-processing company’s value within five days of their announcement. Though figures are not available for the specific number of cases originating from contamination at a food-­processing plant, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 128,000 Americans are hospitalized with food-borne illness from all causes each year, and of those, 3,000 die.

McMurray’s research group is currently developing two systems for the poultry industry. One can grasp a chicken carcass moving along a production line and cut the shoulder tendons in preparation for the removal of the breasts and wings. That system can already match the average yield of a human worker.

In a second project, a low-cost two-armed robot called Baxter…..

MIT Technology Review: Read the full article

More reading from MIT’s Business Report High-Tech Food Chain

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