It is that time of year, when regardless of your religion your are invited to a million Holiday parties. While many go to socialize, network, and toast the past year’s successes, few think about the process that brought that chicken finger into existence. As urbanites we are far very removed from the disgusting manufacturing of meat, just watch two minutes of Fast Food Nation and you may consider becoming vegetarian…
The good news is robots might be the best worker to shield us from the ugliness of food production (ignorance is blissfully tasteful). This week in Norway, a team of engineers from SINTEF research group announced a new robotic way of pulling chicken breasts off the bird using their robot – Gribbot. “Gribb” is Norwegian for vulture, and the machine is said to resemble a vulture’s beak (below).
Pulling chicken breasts off the bone can be a difficult process, and often results in flesh being wasted by getting left behind. In a factory setting, that means slower processing times, and less meat to sell. Chickens are big business. In the United States alone 8.7 billion chickens are processed every year. That’s 36 billion pounds (16 billion kg) of poultry of which the average American consumes 50 pounds (23 kg). On such a scale, costs due to inefficient processing and the need for skilled labor adds up very quickly. Over the years, the meat industry have managed to automate many tasks so that, for example, making bacon is now a largely hands-off affair, but chickens are very irregularly and individually shaped, so automation has passed them by, until now.
Gribbot utilizes a Kinect camera for 3D vision, along with a flexible-fingered grasping hand, and an algorithm that guides that hand’s movements based on what the camera sees. Challenges lie in the fact that the meat is slippery and hard to hold onto, plus reflections on its shiny surface can make 3D imaging difficult. Nevertheless, Gribbot is apparently quite adept at grasping chicken carcasses, identifying the breast meat, and then simultaneously scraping and pulling it off the bone. It is hoped that once perfected, the robot “will make Norwegian food production more sustainable, both in terms of profitability and utilization of raw materials.” SINTEF has a lot of experience their previous invention was a fish-filleting robot below:
Back here at home, Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) have created the ultimate bird deboning weapon. Using 3D imaging technology, the “Intelligent Cutting and Deboning System” developed at GTRI can debone an entire chicken with the skill of a human butcher and has the potential of saving the poultry industry millions of dollars by reducing costs and waste.
“Each bird is unique in its size and shape, so we have developed the sensing and actuation needed to allow an automated deboning system to adapt to the individual bird, as opposed to forcing the bird to conform to the machine,” says Gary McMurray, chief of GTRI’s Food Processing Technology Division.
This is really ground breaking as the robot visually seeks out fixed landmarks on the chicken and uses these as part of an algorithm that estimates the internal structure of the chicken and plans the cuts. These cuts are designed to be precise with the intention of maximizing the amount of meat removed and minimizing the number of bone fragments. This is achieved by the robot’s two arms. One is a cutting arm with two degrees of movement and the other is a holding arm with six degrees of movement. In concert, these arms allow the robot to position the chicken and make the required cuts.
But this wouldn’t be of much help without the final component. The robot can’t see through the chicken while cutting, so it relies on a sort of mechanical “touch” to see how things are going. The arms include a forced-feedback system that tells the robot when it is meeting resistance, such as a bone or tendon. If it meets a hard resistance, it avoids this as a bone. If the resistance only slows the knife, then it’s a tendon or ligament. With these two cues, the robot can stay close to the bone without chipping it and by knowing when it cuts a tendon or ligament, it can remove the meat cleanly and completely, though this is still something of an art.
“Fine tuning is needed to adjust the force thresholds to be able to tell the difference between meat, tendon, ligaments and bone – each of which have different material properties,” said research engineer Ai-Ping Hu (seen above).
The chicken-deboning robot is still undergoing testing and development by GTRI under funding by the state of Georgia through the Agricultural Technology Research Program, but one day soon these robots will be able to replace the abused workers who are longing for better jobs upstream. More meat, less killing, makes chicken little worry free (well, sort-of).