Intelligent eats: The robots fortifying the future of our food
Words by Professor Roger Hellens - Deputy Executive Director, Institute for Future Environments, IFE Directorate
Advances in robotics and digital agriculture have the potential to completely change the future of food. The possible applications of current and emerging technologies in relation to the food industry are many and varied, and the nature of it is ever-evolving too.
At the Institute for Future Environments, we are constantly working on new ways to drive greater potential for improved profitability, quality, efficiency and safety in the industry. From the mechanical processes involved in production to the very makeup of what we put in our mouths, a new generation of machines are revolutionising what is possible.
Why is this so important? To ensure we remain dynamic and relevant as leaders at the edge of industry trends, both now and well into the future, and possibly even change the world while we’re at it.
3D printing food into tangible, edible form
One of the most exciting projects we’re working on is developing new ways of being able to deliver nutritious foods through things like 3D printing.
We’ve developed a simulator where, essentially, you can design your own piece of fruit in a three-dimensional world. We’ve tried to make it as interactive and playful as possible - it’s literally a screen that you can touch to choose elements such as the colour, shape and texture to make it your own.
From there you can generate a file, and the idea is that you then go on to print that as a real edible food item, essentially turning it from the virtual reality into the real world.
So we've developed the interactive tool to customise a design and more recently, we've started a small project just seeing if you can take two different parts of gels and actually 3D print it. We have a collaboration with the School of Design and School of Chemistry which are coming together to combine how you might physically design that, the chemicals and the composition of the gels required to turn the images into its real form.
Of course, a fruit isn't just made up of one colour or one texture - it's a complex picture of many elements that need to be able to be replicated to make the outcome as life-like as possible.
But you can imagine children, for example, who don't particularly want to eat nutritious fruits and vegetables, might change their attitude - especially if they’ve played a creative role in designing it. There’s a lot to be said for this idea of personalisation, which is a trend we’re seeing a lot of in society across various industries.
Beyond simply visual appeal, it really gets exciting when we consider the potential to deliver enhanced nutrition. It might be a perfectly nutritionally balanced banana or a carrot containing protein that you might one day find on the supermarket shelf. We’re very excited by the possibilities.
To put that into context on a global level, it's no secret that nutritional deficiencies are the cause of many deaths around the world. Starvation and malnutrition account for many more deaths than the communicable diseases such as malaria, HIV and AIDS, so if we can alleviate some of that malnutrition by not only offering custom-designed nutrition in fruits and vegetables but also making it more accessible, we can have a global impact.
Similarly, I know there's also an emerging sector in cellular agriculture where components of foods can be grown and then you can use robotics and automation to then effectively print animal products without involving any actual livestock.
It's all still early days, but no doubt it’s an exciting time to be involved in the industry.
Applying robotics to automate production
Another interesting aspect of digital agriculture is the evolution and application of robots in food production, particularly in horticulture, which tends to be very small scale, very productive and produce high value products. This is another space in which we have some exciting work happening as, traditionally, production processes can be very labour intensive.
When a harvest is ready, often you will see fields of people manually picking the fruits and vegetables. But as it’s seasonal, this workforce is very transient and finding workers for certain highly skilled jobs - such as pruning - can be very difficult. Another challenging factor in recruiting workers can be the repetitive labour aspect and harsh weather conditions, so this makes it very appealing to be mechanised.
One of the robots we’ve developed at QUT, which we called Harvey, is designed to work indoors in glass houses to harvest fruit using computer vision. Another robot we have developed, the AgBot2, can essentially go into the field and help broad-acre farming by doing things like automating the weeding process, which is great for chemical-free weeding for instance.
Automation allows us to not only streamline these tasks but also the ability to do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and in conditions that might not be appropriate for manual labourers to work in - making it a very appealing option. The benefits are many and varied.
There are already a handful of commercially available devices out there that can pick fruits, but whether they are economical or not is another question. I would say that’s probably five to 10 years away. My sense is that people have developed prototypes, but the biggest hurdles are accommodating the many variables in the field - like uneven land and variable weather conditions - which makes large broad-acred tasks formally complex.
So initially, I think the first robots will be doing some of the simplest tasks, things like packing the fruits and grading vegetables in a very defined environment. The next thing we might see is picking in a glasshouse, because that's slightly more contained and offers a more predictable environment, particularly high value crops like tomatoes and peppers. One day they might be helpful with pollination, which is a huge issue, and in time we would see them in the field.