Food Robots on the Menu of CMU-Sony Collaboration

Robot chef at EPCOT Center; credit: Sam Howzit, via Flickr

May 22, 2018      
Kayla Matthews

Thanks to ongoing technical advancements, automation is becoming part of each link in the value chain, from production and shipping to retail. Food robots are a good example because of the need for growers and harvesters, sanitary processing, and fast and efficient delivery. A partnership between Carnegie Mellon University and Sony Corp. promises to advance the state of food robots.

Why does this partnership make sense?

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has one of the nation’s leading robotics programs. Sony’s partnership with CMU will use the latter’s School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh as its headquarters. This will allow for access to and input from students and academics.

Dr. Hiroaki Kitano, president and CEO of Sony Computer Science Laboratories, will be the project’s lead.

“Sony has a longstanding relationship with CMU,” said Toshimoto Mitomo, director of intellectual property and business strategy, Business Development Platform, at Sony. “When looking to enter the AI and robotics field, we saw a potential opportunity to work more closely with CMU, which is recognized as one of the world’s top universities in this subject area.”

Aibo robot dog is lending technology to food robots being developed by Sony and CMU.

Sony’s AIBO robot dog at CES 2018. Credit: Rochelle Winters

Sony will reportedly use some technology originally developed for its Aibo robot dog.

A hunger for automation

In March, pasta company Artisola commissioned a survey to learn about Americans’ cooking habits. It learned that only 27% of respondents cook daily. Other studies from 2015 to 2016 found that Americans spent more on eating and drinking outside the home than on groceries.

These statistic suggest that people would prefer not to cook and spend a substantial portion of their incomes avoiding it. Robots that whip up cuisine inside the home could help people save money and make healthy choices without dealing with the inconveniences of cooking themselves.

Moreover, some people would love to cook but can’t because of disabilities that interfere with things like motor control and balance. Robots could provide targeted assistance that helps those people have more freedom for meal planning.

It could also become easier for people to adhere to eating preferences by not consuming gluten or animal products, for example. Robots could help with that, either by preparing food directly in people’s kitchens or by delivering ready-to-eat meals to them.

The global food robotics market will experience a compound annual growth rate of 12.5% from 2017 to 2022 to reach $2.1 billion, predicts Meticulous Research.

Food robots prep for commercial kitchens

In the commercial realm, food-cooking robots could maintain accuracy while prioritizing maximum productivity, since they don’t have to take breaks.

Scalability could become simpler, too, since a robot’s programming facilitates temporarily ramping up production or dialing it back.

At least initially, the partnership between CMU and Japan-based Sony will research ways to enhance methods of food preparation and delivery. The researchers will kick off their efforts by using existing robots and determining ways to improve them for the food sector.

During the later stages of the work, there are plans to create food robots specifically for culinary tasks, as well as those that can operate in confined spaces such as small kitchens.

Recent examples of at least partially automated eateries include Zume Pizza, 6d bytes, and Spyce, not to mention major fast-food chains, which are actively investigating food robots.

Many challenges to overcome for food handling

There are still numerous obstacles to figure out when it comes to making any robot, note robotics industry experts.

For example, food robots need to be able to safely handle ingredients that are fragile and awkwardly shaped, such as eggs and whole pineapples. Different types of grippers are designed to handle foods without dropping them, all while meeting minimum sanitation standards.

Not only must food robots be able to handle a variety of ingredients, but household and restaurant models must be efficient and safe to operate around humans.

The specialists from Sony and CMU will have to delve into human-machine interaction. The aim is for the humans and robots to work toward a common objective without getting in each other’s way.

The two organizations involved in this robotics project reportedly chose the food sector because of the ease of eventually applying their findings to other industries.

The ability to perform delicate tasks is also desirable in manufacturing, for instance. Fortunately, ingredient technologies such as manipulators and machine vision have advanced, allowing for more dexterous and smarter food robots.

Potential projects

Beyond food robots, Sony has committed to supporting CMU through its Seed Acceleration Program, the brand’s business-incubation arm.

Furthermore, CMU will get funding through the Sony Innovation Fund, which provides venture capital to corporations. Those contributions could enable the university to move forward with other projects, regardless of whether Sony teams up with it.

Kayla Matthews

About the author:

Kayla Matthews is a technology journalist and robotics writer whose work has appeared on Vice, VentureBeat, RoboticsTomorrow, and Robotiq’s blog. To read more posts from Kayla, visit her blog Productivity Bytes.