FoodTech: will robotics make an appearance in our restaurants and our plates?


Could a starred chef one day learn and pass on his culinary art to a robot? This seems highly unlikely to us in the current state of the art, even with the dazzling progress of artificial intelligence and cobotics.

Yet, it’s a fact, robots are starting to make a place for themselves at our table: they started in private homes in the 1970s –at the time the little kitchen robot was one of the best sellers in household appliances– but were hardly visible in restaurants and canteens until recently.

In Australia, at the start of 2020, the Nisska Ice Cream Bar deployed 3 robots, a humanoid for the reception, a robotic arm for beating the ice cream and a last for the “toppings” – the different toppings. For its creators, Anton Morus, roboticist, and Kate Orlova, biologist, the project is a theater – and behind it are 14 engineers and technicians who focus on the design and maintenance.

© Niska Robotic Ice Cream Bar, Crossbar Building Federation Square, Melbourne.

To the victory of frozen foods and microwaves in the 1980s, can we oppose and imagine the traditional revenge of a meal prepared locally, and at the same price? This challenge seemed impossible, and yet the local approach is finally gaining ground.

This is why it is not so incredible to imagine a robot cook in a “Dark Kitchen”, a kitchen not linked to a particular restaurant, not far from your home, which would prepare good meals from local ingredients from urban micro-gardens. As such, Agricool’s containerized strawberries show us a very interesting “zero carbon” path.

For Michaël Farid, interviewed by the Washington Post about his robotic restaurant opened with the support of Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud in Boston, “the robots take care of tedious tasks – such as cooking and washing” in order to leave time for humans. For most French people, cooking remains a noble task, quite the opposite of a chore.

In recent years, we have been mesmerized by the ballet of these robotic arms which assemble a dish or a dessert with impressive speed. But these technological show demonstrators are more like an industrial dishes factory than a real cuisine with refined dishes.

Could it be that one day a robot will know how to cook like a starred chef? He would need a “nose”, an electronic “palate” and be connected to the Rungis market to regularly pick up the best ingredients and condiments, then test them … We are not there, fortunately, and yet as we will. see, some start-ups are already preparing for it.

Several robotic kitchen projects are already well funded

One of the best known is Sally, designed by Chowbotics. It is an on-demand salad assembler. The concept, popularized by the Subway sandwiches, is done this time only in front of a machine, the size of a food distributor, which sorts the ingredients according to your will.

It reminds us of orange juice machines. In France, the food industry manufacturer Bonduelle has been seduced and markets this machine under the name Cabaletta. For the marketing director, the advantage is being able to quickly create “more than 1000 salad combinations”.

The start-up, Chowbotics, was acquired in February 2021 by DoorDash, a home delivery giant. Perhaps more for innovation than for taste …

My former boss, Brent Hoberrmann, also believes strongly in “kitchen food robotics”. For this, he bet 6 million pounds on Karakuri, a London company that is developing a robotic canteen. This time around, there is more than salads on the menu. The size is imposing, about that of an apartment kitchen, with in its center, behind a glass, a robotic arm similar to the one found in the factory. But there is better, this young company is advised by Heston Blumenthal, English starred chef. His conviction? ” It is up to the robots to take care of the portions and the exact measurement of the ingredients, better than we can, and thus allow us to act more like humans ” he said, explaining the military and scientific character of high-end cuisine.

For Barney Wragg, its CEO, “ the precision and control that robotics brings to a kitchen can give the ability and opportunity to create new and innovative dishes and to push menu creativity forward. Robotics can precisely accomplish tasks that humans may find difficult, which means we can evolve restaurants from a set menu to an individualized menu where the customer decides precisely what they want to eat. ”

One of Karakuri’s strengths would therefore be the fact that he can choose his foods to measure, for example in order to avoid allergens. “Our DK-One robot is the starting point for this evolution. It allows customers to design their meal precisely, not only in terms of ingredients, but also in terms of nutritional values ​​”, Barney details.

The other point is Data Science, with the display of the% local food, and why not the carbon equivalent… and the reduction of food losses. This robotic kitchen would like to find its place in Hotels or Hospitals at the end of 2021, to be continued …

© DK-One, Karakuri, London.

At the same time, in France, the assembly robot is well advanced, it is called Cook-E.

For its co-founder, Ludovic Ho Fuh, engineer Centralien, it will be “capable of making a multitude of hot or cold dishes, such as salads, dishes simmered and controlled for hours, or stir-fry dishes which are cooked during the cooking. order from a customer. “

Among its many promises, a response to musculoskeletal disorders that arise regularly for kitchen staff. The robot could take care of these thankless and tiring tasks.

Profitability seems to be at the heart of Cook-e “It stores, measures, cuts, weighs, mixes and cooks your dishes” in order to allow restaurants to optimize their costs. ” The integration of such a robot, and the intelligence that accompanies it, also makes it possible to facilitate the organization of a restaurant. How to predict the quantity of dishes requiring long cooking, and start preparing them at any time », Explains Ludovic. Ultimately, this robot could be deployed in a company or in a “ghost kitchen”.

We should also mention Popchef’s digital canteen, a “salad bar” and connected fridge, but not robotic for the moment. In a future version maybe? As we can see, the promise of coffee machines today extends to other culinary aspects, with a clever mix of dosage, preparation and also cleaning so that these robot cooks can be autonomous.

AI to train robotic arms to cook a burger?

Let’s take it a step further with the AI ​​from Miso Robotics, which already seems able to assemble a complete Hamburger. A feat for a robotic arm because you have to grill, turn over, stack the food. The arm relies on multiple sensors and a thermal camera to accurately determine key moments.

© Miso Robotics, Pasadena.

Here again, the promise is to free up human time, the cook can then devote himself to other more sensitive and technical tasks. Investors believe it since they brought in January 2021 a total of 30 million dollars to this promising startup in Pasadena, California.

Crédit: © Miso Robotics, Pasadena.

Back from CES Las Vegas in 2015, having lunch at Minneapolis airport, with consultant Dimitri Carbonnelle, we were surprised to see a restaurant equipped with one tablet per table, and even at the counter. All the dishes and orders took place via the iPad! This seems completely banal in 2021. As for the fast-food chains, it is a giant tablet that acts as a click & collect, like the terminals at McDonald’s, designed by the French integrator Acrelec. Table service has become a reality at McDonald’s, thanks to giant kiosks and Bluetooth sensors on the ceiling for geolocation, explained Jacques Mangeot, its co-founder. A cultural change in just a decade. This puts our disbelief in the adoption of technology and robots into perspective.

Beyond the kitchen, robotics is entering the dining room. It also remains to conquer the new world, that of indoor social distancing. Thus at the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, Professor Etemad-Sajadi is already teaching his students to use and tame social robotics, in support of clerks. A butler – robot-as-a-concierge – who comes in addition, for example to converse in several languages ​​or quite simply to add a playful aspect to the reception moment in a restaurant or a hotel.

In Tokyo, more than twenty robots to serve and entertain you

A year ago, in Tokyo, I had the pleasure of discovering one of the first robotic restaurants designed and implemented by my colleagues at SoftBank Robotics Japan. Located in Shibuya, a few meters from the famous pedestrian crossing, the Pepper Parlor Café is a unique place, which offers trendy waffles, pancakes and drinks. Unique not for its cuisine, made by humans, but for the presence of many robots: there are more than twenty of them!

At the reception, Pepper receives you, presents the dishes, and takes your order. During a pandemic, Pepper connects to a thermal camera to check your temperature and grants you permission to enter. Once at the table, it’s a surprise: another Pepper robot is there to entertain you with multi-player family games to energize the moment and make the experience even more memorable.

© SoftBank Robotics – Pepper Parlor Café, Shibuya.

Then a new robot is emerging, here is Servi, a transporter robot decked out with two trays, which brings the ordered dishes. But it is a waitress who takes them and places them delicately on the table, with the art, the manner and the little note; and checks customer needs such as additional drinks. After a few seconds, the Servi robot weighs the dishes and, seeing that they are empty, knows that this is the signal to return to the entrance to the kitchen.

Its software allows it to avoid obstacles and thanks to “virtual walls”, it knows precisely which areas to avoid. For 95% of customers, this discreet robot that brings the dishes and accompanies the waiter is satisfactory, making it possible to speed up the delivery of their order and to remove the dishes more quickly after consumption.

Then place the musical ballet of the NAO – yes the little robot designed in Paris occurs every day in the heart of Tokyo – in a frenzied sound quartet! Finally, in the evening, once the last customer has left, it’s the Whiz robot’s turn to vacuum, completely independently.

© SoftBank Robotics – Pepper Parlor Café, Shibuya

Boosted by the components of smartphones and the learning of autonomous cars, restaurant delivery robots seem to have a bright future, without contact. We can easily imagine them in collective catering, and in particular in EHPAD where residents can sometimes no longer walk. Calling a robot to have the pepper and salt is already possible.

The gastronomic future is being written every day, and it is obvious that new technologies could play a favorable role in the reopening of restaurants, and why not give a playful side to these places of life that we miss so much. As Chef Guy Savoy says: “Going to a restaurant is a break from well-being in a sometimes hectic life. (…) This art of living makes the whole planet dream».

So let’s get ready for the reopening!

The contributor:

Nicolas Halftermeyer is communications director of SoftBank Robotics Europe, the world leader in humanoid robotics. He previously held marketing positions at Business Objects, Lastminute, Parrot Netgem and Xilam.

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