Food manufacturing is a very complex & labour intensive process. Human intervention is required at each stage of food processing - from the milling of grains or the deboning of meat to the storage and packaging of processed food. However, the recent pandemic and rise in food-borne diseases such as stomach flu and cholera have to lead many to question whether this 'human touch' in food is worth the risk.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 70% of the food-borne disease in the USA happen due to infected individuals handling and processing food. Apart from serious health issues, food contamination also leads to costly wastage and loss to companies due to product recall.
So how do we solve the problem of processing food without human touch?
Robotics and automation are a key part of the solution. Robots which has been traditionally used in secondary food processing such as sorting or packing food is witnessing increased adoption in more complex activities like processing of raw materials or butchery.
The advancement in robotics has also resulted in robots being used in tertiary food processing activities such as large-scale industrial cooking of ready-to-eat foods, like frozen pizzas and packaged snacks.
Robotics in Farming
The importance of robotic systems in farming is high, mainly due to the multiple sources of potential contamination in the field. Since agriculture is the first ladder of the food manufacturing system, contamination at this stage would have a cascading effect. Many crops are harvested in bulk; therefore, a bad crop can essentially lead to a large outbreak of the disease it was contaminated with.
A leading company in this area is French start-up Naïo Robotics. They have created a weeding robot that can be used for big and small crops, vineyards, and vegetables. Weeding is an entry point for contamination and thus, requires a great deal of time investment, effort, and skill. These robots streamline the process using artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision to find and pull the weeds out. Naïo Robotics also claims that their robots are entirely eco-friendly and can run all day on solar power. This is great news, considering that if they weren’t, instead of solving an existing problem we would be creating another problem of the environmental impact of using these robots.
An additional reason for contamination in farming is fertilization. Uneven spraying of fertilizers can lead to diseases in the crop. This problem is currently being addressed by drones. Commercial farming companies are having drones spray the right amount of fertilizer evenly across their fields by flying over them in an autonomous, pre-coded pattern. Some of the companies working in this space include DJI, which provides AGRAS MG-1, an octocopter agricultural drone capable of precision variable rate application of liquid pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides.
The next step in the food manufacturing business is food preparation, and it is here that the risk of food transmitted diseases is the highest. Particularly when considering fast-food chains where there are often no professional chefs and the chances of lower hygiene is very high due to poor management.
The processing of food in fast food chains is fairly mechanical. The idea is to take the task of say, making a burger, and breaking it down into its smaller parts. These smaller parts can now be mechanized and then strung together into an assembly line. This can produce food at a much faster rate, and more importantly, food is is prepared in an entirely sterilized environment and never touched by another human being. This way, the chances of food poisoning are lowered considerably.
Café X provides robotic coffee bars that make steaming hot coffee for customers with not a single person in operation. Another very similar company is Blendid. They provide robotic smoothie bars and are now seen in Walmart stores. The interesting thing about Blendid is that the company is gaining popularity largely because of the current pandemic and due to demand for untouched food. This paves the way for more robotically produced fast food, particularly in the post-COVID era.
For those of us that can cook, I'm sure your first reaction will be, "well, it's not that easy." And certainly, it's not. Cook-bots are by far the most challenging robots to create, mainly because it isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario. The fundamental idea of robotics is that we split a complicated task into smaller parts and then mechanize them in an assembly and that indeed, is exactly what the commercial cooking robots do. Herein lies the challenge. If we try to split the robotic arrangement into smaller parts and mechanize, it will create an assembly that is too big and redundant. Roboticists have quickly found that the most optimised way to make food is through a robotic hand that can mimic a human hand.
This is a monumental task, which is why many companies are starting small. The California based company Miso Robotics has created a robotic hand called Flippy. Although Flippy cannot fully cook, it can act as a very efficient kitchen assistant and wield all sorts of kitchen tools. There are also many other companies which are making similar kitchen assistant arms.
All these arms, however, require humans to still be in the kitchen and touch food. What about entirely touchless cooking? Is that not possible? The London-based company Moley Robotics have risen to the challenge and are making just that – an entirely automated kitchen that can cook like a professional chef. The company claims to be very close to product launch and seeing the rise of robotics in fast food chains, it is reasonable to think that this automated kitchen will have much utility in the post-COVID world.
The coronavirus outbreak has led to the creation of many disinfecting robots that are capable of sanitizing an entire room in a matter of seconds. Today, these robots are finding their use in hospitals and emergency rooms. In the post-COVID era, these robots are sure to find themselves in the birthplace of contamination – the kitchens of the food industry.
Companies, such as Xenex Disinfection Services and UVD Robots, that already have disinfecting robots will be expanding into the food market by providing service robots that can sanitize any surface required and preventing the spread of many food-related diseases.
2020 is the year that has taught us the true dangers of contamination, and the post-COVID era is sure to have an emphasis on not having any sort of contamination at all. Whether it be in the food we eat or the air we breathe, robotic systems are expected to be at the forefront of keeping us safe from any biohazard.