Robots Can Now Debone a Chicken with Surgical Precision

By Samson Varghese , Jun 04, 2012 09:18 AM EDT

One more feather into the robotics' cap. Now robots can slice meat from chicken bone more accurately than any human. It is Gary McMurray, the head of Georgia Tech Research Institute's (GTRI) Food Processing Technology Division who lead this project to success.

The basic difficulty is that every chicken is different, and while experts can tell at a glance where to cut, when and which way to turn the blade, and how much force to exert, robots are not quite as sensitive. It's essentially a robotic hand and knife that can see in 3-D and sense when and how to cut up each individual chicken. One robot arm holds the bird while a computer vision system contemplates its contours. After determining the depths and locations of joints, bones, and so on, it goes to work. The knife itself only makes simple cutting movements, but the arm holding the chicken can move freely, and they work together to debone with what McMurray hopes will be great precision and speed.

The statistical research of the group shows that their external measurements correlate very well to the internal structure of the birds, and therefore will transition to ideal cutting paths. In their prototype device, everything is registered to calibrated reference frames, which allows them to handle all cut geometries and to precisely align the bird and the cutting robot.

McMurray and his team of scientists have worked out advanced mathematical equations, complex graphs showing "cutting systems" and precise anatomical diagrams of chickens. Researchers tried various approaches to understand deboning and chicken anatomy. Along with another study, researchers strapped plant workers with high-tech backpacks and electrodes to study precisely how they cut chickens. To better understand the internal makeup of chickens, they gave several MRI scans to chickens at a local hospital. A robot must process about 1,000 commands per second to size up each bird and make cuts. The robot now can make cuts that are accurate to within millimeters and do them within a fraction of a second.

Poultry is Georgia's top agricultural product, with an estimated annual economic impact of nearly $20 billion statewide. Helping the poultry industry maximize its return on every flock can translate to important dividends. The research is funded by the state of Georgia through the Agricultural Technology Research Program at GTRI. The implementation of the project will save thousands of dollars in manpower in poultry processing.

There are some other sides of the coin too. Restaurants want to make sure robot-deboned meat doesn't contain flecks of bone. So food safety is an issue here. Poultry workers fear losing their jobs if the robots take over, and makers of deboning machines-which aren't as advanced, because they can only debone chickens of a specific dimension-see their turf being invaded.

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