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Robots Gaining Ground in Kitchens

  • George Putic

Search-and-rescue operations in dangerous environments are often seen as the first areas that will employ advanced robots. But there is another segment of everyday life that may soon see many robots taking over jobs usually reserved for humans: the restaurant industry.

At the DARPA Robotic Challenge competition held in California, robots were required to complete tasks quite simple for humans — drive a vehicle, climb up steps, cross some rough terrain, shut a valve. Some spectacular failures illustrated how hard it is to design efficient walking machines.

Only a few days later, at an annual food machinery and technology exhibition in Tokyo, a stationary robotic chef prepared food with remarkable versatility, while other machines cooked, baked pastries and even wrapped perfect sushi.

Akihiro Suzuki, assistant manager at Yaskawa Electric, said his company's robot, MOTOMAN-SDA5, could be an excellent kitchen assistant because it never gets tired.

“Obviously, it's difficult for him to taste or adjust heat or seasonings properly to get the best flavor," Suzuki said. "But if it's simple cooking with a specific proportion of seasoning, he can repeat the same movement to reproduce the same dish.”

Visitors were impressed. Masayo Mori, watching the robot at work, said, "I wouldn't mind getting a husband like this for myself.”

Suzumo Machinery displayed its sushi maker, which takes over the strenuous and repetitive task of wrapping the increasingly popular Japanese delicacy.

Hiroshi Monden, one of the company managers, said sushi "has been spread to the world, but sushi chefs are not as much. With this machine, anybody can make sushi so easily and repeatedly.”

Another new technology that impressed onlookers was a machine designed by the Furukawa Kikou company for scooping and moving soft ingredients without leaving any residue. Development division manager Takuya Furukawa said the machine, SWITL, was perfect for the fast-food industry.

“This machine is devised to scoop up soft material like hamburger patties or dough to put them into ovens or freezers without spoiling their shapes,” he said.

The company would not say what kind of technological breakthrough their innovation was based upon. Experts suspect the surfaces may be covered with some kind of hydrophobic material that repels water molecules.

Other robots, such as those that frost cakes or peel and slice apples, may also find their way into today’s kitchens.

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