Can an industrial robot succeed both at removing the breast fillet from a chicken, and at the same time get more out of the raw materials? This is one of the questions to which researchers working on the CYCLE project now have the answer.
They have built a fully-functional robot in the lab to automate the process of extracting breast fillets from chickens. This is a task normally performed by skilled human hands. “Our aim is to automate absolutely everything we can think of on the food production line”, says Ekrem Misimi at SINTEF. This will make Norwegian food production more sustainable, both in terms of profitability and utilisation of raw materials.
Sharp-eyed robot with nimble fingers
Ekrem is a technical cyberneticist with a doctoral degree in machine vision, and has specialised in providing robots with sharp, three-dimensional vision – which in this case means eyes for the anatomy of a chicken. “Automating this process is something that no one else in the world has succeeded in doing before. Except us”, says Misimi proudly.
“We at SINTEF are the only specialists in Norway to have focused on solving these kinds of problems for the food industry”, he adds. So far, one of our results is the robot Gribbot, named because of its resemblance to a vulture’s beak (‘gribb’ is the Norwegian for vulture).
Gribbot is well equipped. It has a hand for grasping, specially developed ‘fingers’, and three-dimensional vision. Its ‘eyes’ have been borrowed from a 3D camera familiar to all games fans – the Microsoft Kinect 2. These are all needed because a chicken fillet is a delicate object that must be handled extremely carefully. The robotic hand must not spoil it with marks or other quality defects. Both the robot’s vision and its grasping hand are critical factors.
Smooth and shiny
“Generally speaking, it’s a major challenge to get a robot to process biological raw materials, because it involves automating a task that is normally performed by skilled people. The raw materials also vary in terms of their size and properties. It’s easy to deform or damage a chicken fillet”, explains Misimi. And because it’s so smooth, a chicken fillet is also an extremely reflective object. That makes it difficult to obtain fully detailed 3D images. The texture also means that the meat is hard to grip. “We realised this early on when we began our research, and were determined to develop a flexible system that could not only tackle variations in the raw materials, but also the mechanical challenges of extracting the fillet from the chicken”, says Misimi.
Mathematical ‘brain surgery’
Naturally, controlling the robot is a key factor.
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