Robots with visual and tactile sensing can prevent tons of food waste

Intelligent food handling by robots can boost productivity and reduce waste in the production chain. Meet the robot with visual and tactile sensing, capable of handling compliant food objects.

Each year, across the world, 1.3 billion tons of food goes to waste while it is being produced. Norway, with its population of five millon, discard as much as 320,000 tonnes every year. Scientists maintain that one of the main reasons for this is a lack of smart and flexible food handling and processing technologies.

Current food production methods are based on systems that are struggling to handle the variations in structure and shape that food raw materials present. In short, we need more and better automated systems that can improve the degree of utilisation of our food.

This is exactly what a research team at SINTEF, a Norwegian research institute, is looking into as part of a project called iProcess. Research scientists have developed, in close collaboration with companies in both the agriculture and seafood sectors, new knowledge and robot technologies that will help us to resolve the problem food waste in the production chain.

Complex finger dexterity

Many food processing tasks involve the handling of soft food items and other raw materials that vary greatly in size and shape. This variation has made it difficult to automate these processes using mechanical systems. This is where robots enter the stage – although their use is not without its challenges.

To be useful, robots have to master the complex finger dexterity that is needed to handle and process items such as meat, fish and seafood.

“The interaction between a robot and food items that are fragile, soft and malleable presents us with one of the greatest challenges in the field of robotics today, not least because the materials can change their shape and structure while they are being handled”, says Senior Research Scientist Ekrem Misimi at SINTEF Ocean.

Robot and scientist in the lab, working with learning the robot to grip a tomato gently

Tomato, fish, or maybe chicken. This robot manages to grip different types of soft structures, without destroying anything. Photo: TYD

Handling food materials using robots is not the same as automating processes that involve only solid, rigid industrial objects. Smarter robots are needed for soft food items. Existing robots lack the visual and tactile sensitivity, as well as the intelligence, to carry out such tasks. To date, we’ve been unable to develop robot technology that can adequately see and feel the food objects to be manipulated. But things are changing. The research team at SINTEF has developed a robot technology with ‘eyes’ that can see, using 3D vision, a ‘brain’, based on artificial intelligence, and tactile-sensitive ‘hands’ that can manipulate food items.

“These attributes enable us to teachthe robots task-specific intelligence, which is good enough to automatically perform operations such as gripping”, says Misimi. “The robot technology developed as part of this project has succeeded in achieving something that is quite innovative, in that the robot can skilfully handle soft and pliable food items such as fish, vegetables and fruit, that vary in size,shape and texture”, he says.

Ideal for small-scale production systems

“We’ve been developing entirely new concepts and methods that are ideal for small-scale food production systems, which are very common throughout Norway”, says Misimi. “The result will be more flexible and sustainable ways of handling food, leading to better raw materials utilisation and enhanced profitability throughout the sector, including small producers. Moreover, robots will also enable us to reduce the need for heavy and monotonous manual labour”, he says.

“Currently, many of the tasks involved in food harvesting and processing are carried out manually”, says Misimi. “These are heavy, demanding and repetitive jobs that result in wear and tear on workers. If you add to this the mechanical and semi-automatic systems currently in use, which are entirely unable to address the biological variation found in soft food raw materials, we end up with totally inefficient handling and processing, and large volumes of food going to waste”, he says.

Nortura is a major Norwegian food producer that is happy to confirm that heavy and repetitive manual tasks present a challenge. The company is a partner in the iProcess project.

“They are a problem not least for those who have to carry them out”, says Per Berg, who is Director of Innovation at Nortura. “So the new technology can be very beneficial, not least from a health and safety perspective”, he says.

Meat production in Norway is carried out at a relatively small scale when compared with operations in other parts of the world. Even our biggest abattoirs are smaller than most in Denmark and, if we exclude small-scale organic production from certain small-scale farms, operate with only 20 per cent of the volumes we see in the biggest Danish slaughterhouses.

This is why Berg maintains that robots that can manipulate meat and other soft raw materials in a sensitive way may provide the Norwegian food production sector with a competitive advantage. Ideally, however, he believes that robots and people should be working together.

“A robot is capable of gripping and moving food items, but accurate cutting requires practice, precision and a technique that can only be mastered by skilled manual workers”, says Berg.

Currently, Nortura operates with only very few robots on its production lines. These are used mainly in connection with automatic placement and sawing. However, in the future, Berg envisages that the company will be deploying as many robots as are practically possible. This will happen as soon as robot technology becomes less expensive. According to Berg, the fact that robots are precise and very hygienic (because they do not carry contaminants into the production facilities) may also be beneficial in the light of the recent pandemic. Robotisation means less exposure of the meat to bacteria, which will promote a longer shelf life and reduce the risks of spreading food-borne infections.

Automation lends a competitive edge

“Our new knowledge and technology are critically important, not only at a time when a growing global population is demanding ever-increasing volumes of protein, but also because they will enable us to ensure food production security. This is a function that is key to the well-being of the global community in situations where human operators are prevented from doing their jobs”, says Misimi.

He is convinced that his team’s research will contribute towards meeting many of the current challenges facing the Norwegian food industry.

“Productivity will increase when the robot’s ‘eyes’, ‘brain’ and ‘hands’ are all working together”, says Misimi. “Less food will be discarded and profitability will increase. In doing so, continued wealth generation will be safeguarded in Norway”, he says. Misimi also believes that flexible robotic automation systems will lend a competitive edge to the european industrial sector.