Iron Chefs: kitchen automation is coming to your home

A pre-packaged ingredient box is delivered via drone and lands on your doorstep. You take it to the kitchen and unpack it in front of a camera and robot arm with access to the sink, stove, and all of your kitchen appliances. Each surface on the counter lights up green as the camera recognizes the components for a bolognese sauce, and the robot arm gets to work chopping onions, sautéing ground beef, and boiling water for pasta. This is how easy home cooking could be in the near future.

Key stats:

  • From a survey of 22 countries, global citizens spend 6.7 hours per week on average cooking
  • Domestic robots are expected to cost $2,000-4,000 within the next decade
  • Spending on robots could hit $67 billion by 2025

While all of these features have yet to be included in a single service, robots that automate kitchen prep work, start cooking before you come home from work, and take the guesswork out of making a nutritious meal are all already available, working in restaurants around the world, and being developed for domestic use. The International Federation of Robotics reports that sales of domestic robots could reach 13 million units in 2019, and according to an estimate from Boston Consulting Group, spending on robots could hit $67 billion by 2025. And although industrial robots currently cost $20,000-40,000 apiece, tech trend forecasters predict the prices will drop to 10% of that within a decade. When the microwave hit the market in 1955 as a hot new technological innovation it could cost up to $1,200, and these tech companies are banking on the fact that automation entering the home cooking process will become as commonplace as zapping a frozen dinner.

Automated eateries

Robotic restaurants across the globe are already proving the concept by serving up hundreds of tasty meals with limited human intervention. Spyce, a Boston eatery opened in May of 2018 by four MIT engineers, has replaced an entire kitchen staff with seven robotic woks. A runner box grabs the ingredients as they are dispensed from refrigerated cylinders, then tosses them into a wok to be heated by magnetic induction. A few human employees help out with chopping and re-stocking the ingredients, as well as garnishing and delivering the completed bowls, and the design of the restaurant allows customers to watch all of the cooking happen in real time, as meals are completed in three minutes. The woks also wash themselves with jets between orders, consuming 80% less water than the average commercial dishwasher.

Momentum Machines, on the opposite coast, serve burgers on brioche in San Francisco through an entirely automated process at a restaurant called Creator. They have applied the iterative nature of technological innovation to their food, claiming it took them 14 years to perfect their pickles. All of the burger components, including sliced vegetables, grated cheese, and chopped or ground meats, are made to order, and Creator claims to be the first restaurant to automate preparation of a major food category from start to finish. Plus, the burger will only set you back $6.00, which is ridiculously cheap for eating out in SF.

Momentum hasn’t cornered the market on burgers, however: Miso Robotics have developed a burger-flipping robot called Flippy that is now in use in international fast casual chains. Depending on the rate at which kitchen staff keep putting raw patties in front of it, Flippy can cook 150 to 300 burgers an hour. It uses cameras and sensors to sense when it’s time to flip with its spatula arm, and can also work a fryer – but it hasn’t been designed to replace fast food workers, it’s OSHA certified to work safely alongside them.

Chowbotics offers some healthier alternatives with their debut robot Sally, an automated system to make salads, snacks, breakfast bowls, and grains, with trendy poke and açai bowls in development. Positioned in commercial venues such as offices, coworking spaces, health care facilities, universities, senior living centers, and hotels, Sally offers 24/7 nutrition that is customizable down to the macronutrients. While it may seem like just a really fancy vending machine, piling ingredients up in a bowl is all it takes to “cook” a salad, so technically, Sally is a robot chef. Finally Haidilao, the largest restaurant chain by market value in in Asia, have just outfitted one of their Beijing hot pot locations in October 2018 with robots taking orders, preparing meat and vegetables, and delivering them to diners. The robots come courtesy of a partnership with Panasonic, and they plan to expand the fully automated service to 5,000 restaurants worldwide.

Bringing the bots home

Moley Robotics have created a prototype set of robot arms that won the Best of the Best at its debut in the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show by cooking a crab bisque exactly like a master chef. Their product, the Moley Robotic Kitchen, consists of human-like arms developed by Shadow Robot, containing 20 motors, 24 joints, and 129 sensors, housed inside of an enclosed area with an oven, stovetop, and touchscreen. The final product, which is currently still in the development stage for consumers, will also consist of a platform for recording and sharing recipes, so that in the same way their prototype was taught to make a crab bisque by mimicking human movements, new recipes could be taught, uploaded, and shared with other users. However, the current prototype still requires quite a bit of human intervention: it has no camera equipment, so ingredients must be placed precisely in front of it, and despite Moley’s claims that it will come equipped with 2,000 recipes, there have been no demonstrations of a Moley bot cooking anything but bisque since 2015.

One of the main problems in engineering a dynamic cooking system like the one Moley will use to handle new ingredients and cooking techniques is the need for large amounts of data to teach computer vision to differentiate between a wide variety of ingredients with different shapes, colors, and positions, as well as basic human actions like picking up and using kitchen utensils. The EPIC-Kitchens project, created by an international team of researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Toronto, and Catania, is an effort to collect and categorize this data. Each participant in the data collection process filmed themselves using a GoPro while doing basic household tasks for 1-5 hours, then narrated their videos so the researchers could apply natural language processing and image recognition systems to them. Although the data set they currently have is small, with only 55 hours of footage, the systems learned to recognize washing, mixing, cutting, and other actions, which is the first step to teaching automated systems a wide range of household tasks.

An automated cooking experience that fits in the average modern kitchen and is already available to preorder, Suvie is gaining momentum as the hot gadget to look for in June of 2019. The Suvie system offers weekly ingredient deliveries for the device, which uses four drawers to cook starches, proteins, vegetables, and sauces using heated water, steam, and a broiler. When it isn’t cooking, the same containers are capable of refrigeration, so all of the ingredients for dinner can be popped in before work, chill all day, and then programmed via smartphone app or the touch of a button to heat. For the more dedicated sous vide chef, the Mellow system is a purely vacuum-and-water cooking machine that is also capable of refrigeration and remote or timed activation, but also has an aesthetically pleasing see-through chamber to watch the magic happen.

For both eating out and dining in, the iron chefs are already here: kitchen automation has been tested for all types of cuisine, from Mechanical Chef, an Indian startup cooking rice, dal, and curries, to robot baristas drawing latte art. In the next 5-10 years, with the projected acceleration of robotic development and innovation in home appliances, having a robot that assembles, heats, and cleans up after cooking may no longer sound like science fiction. And if you don’t even have time for a fork and knife, well… there’s always Soylent.

Cooking automation companies and restaurants to keep an on:

Cafe X – robot powered coffee bars
Chowbotics – custom food preparation robot, Sally.
Creator – striving to make the perfect burger using robot skills
Haidilao – the first eatery with a fully automated kitchen
Mechanical Chef – a cooking robot specialising in Indian cuisine
Mellow – automatic sous-vide machine and app
Miso Robotics – creators of flippy, the automated kitchen assistant
Moley Robotics – integrated kitchen robot
Suvie – smart home robot refrigerator and cooker

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