Tag: robot

Mechanical Chef

Mechanical Chef

On November 17th, 2017 at the Maker Faire in Bangalore, on stage before an audience of a few hundred people, a machine cooked a simple Indian side-dish – a potato fry.

The next day it prepared a pot of rice.

In so doing, it became the world’s first machine to cook an Indian meal autonomously.

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The Mechanical Chef is the coming to fruition of an idea that germinated in the year 2012, when a colleague and I were walking down Millers Road, on the way to a cup of coffee at a roadside store, and I asked the colleague if there was any way in which we could really change the world and ‘make a dent in the universe’ as it were, in the present millennium.

The colleague was a woman, and she said that if Indian women didn’t have to do any cooking, it would save a large fraction of half a billion women in India 3 hours a day every day of their lives.

That day in 2012, my colleague, Princiya and I started dissecting Indian cooking.

We came up with simple operations that underlay Indian recipes that did not require shaping (we aren’t aiming to prepare rotis {there’s a machine for that already}, idlis or dosas {again, there’s a machine available for that}).

And they were:

  1. Adding ingredients
  2. Heating
  3. Manipulations such as stirring, sieving, grinding, whisking and powdering
  4. Transferring from one container to another

And we came up with a machine that could do all the above.

At the time, there was a Chinese cooking robot which could cook stir-fried (wok-friend) dishes:

and there were several experimental machines like Moley which used expensive robotic arms for cooking.

There is even another team in Bangalore that is also working at present on a cooking robot for Indian food!

 

Our First Design

In 2012 we came up with a much simpler architecture which could support all the above cooking functions (the ones that would be needed for Indian cooking).  It was a type of sensor network for cooking.

It was an improvement over the Chinese automated wok in that it could cook multiple dishes at the same time, and it was an improvement over the robotic arms because it was much simpler and therefore more cost-effective.

We took the drawings to Dr. Raju of Systemantics (a maker of industrial robots in Bangalore) one day.  He listened to us patiently and observed that our machine would need very powerful motors in order to lift heavy vessels up against the force of gravity.

This is a common mistake that firms developing cooking robots make.  Going against gravity is never a good idea when you have to carry kilograms of ingredients in a vessel.  The motors end up having to be big and powerful and friction becomes a very big hindrance to smooth movement.

This was the mistake that Moley (and the Chinese automatic wok) had made.  Moley’s motors and construction make it so expensive that it costs around $100,000 a piece.  We figured we’d need to build something that cost around $300 to be able to sell it to home users.

So, we went back to the drawing board.

 

Our Second Design

Last year (in 2016), we developed a machine that looked a bit like this one at MIT:

… and this one …

In our second design, the cooking vessels moved on a linear rail and ingredients dropped into them from above much like they do in the machines above.

We did not have a grinder and could not transfer ingredients from one container to another at will in our design.

But as we analysed Indian cooking recipes further, we realized that the vast majority of Indian dishes did not need any transferring of ingredients across vessels, and even if they did, we could stop the cooking at a certain point and ask a human to do the transfer without greatly impacting the automatic cooking experience.

We could also get by without grinding for many dishes if we used specially made powders in our cooking machine.

It was with this design that I went to my old friend Prashanth G. B. N., a mechanical engineer and designer of hardware systems, for his advice.

He took a look at the drawings and felt we would have to make the machine even simpler if it had to be used in Indian homes.

 

Our Third Design

He took a sheet of paper and sketched on it a design that had only rotary movements.

“Rotary motion is far simpler to build out than linear motion” he explained.

After developing a detailed drawing of the machine, Prashanth and I took out a patent on the same.

 

From Design to Reality

The Mechanical Chef however only turned into reality when Arpit Sharma, an aerospace engineer from Rajasthan joined me and solved all the mechanical problems that remained.

We had to solve the problem of dispensing powders from a removable and easy-to-wash and easy-to-assemble container.

We had to find ways to completely dissociate the parts that came into contact with the food from the parts that came into contact with the electricals so that the former would be easy to clean.

We had to minimize the number of parts that needed to be cleaned after every cook.

We needed to finesse the electronics and electricals – a job which was often summarily dropped into the lap of a young engineer from Mysore – Avinash Bharadwaj.

To support ourselves as we worked on all these problems and to pay for the hardware, we applied for a grant from the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India through IIT-Bombay.  In October of this year, we received the grant.

The first prototype that Arpit Sharma built looked like this.

Rendered_CAD_model

And it worked!

 

The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating

Here’s a video of the machine at work.  And you’re welcome to stop by and be one of the first humans on earth to eat Indian food cooked by a robot.

Here’s how it stirs.

Here’s our mini funding pitch!

Here’s our team at the office with the Mechanical Chef.

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There’s a little website for it:  http://www.mechanicalchef.com

 

POST PUBLICATION ADDITION

The prototype that we demonstrated in November 2017 suffered from a few flaws which made it unreliable and unsuitable for user trials.  One of the problems was that the quantities of ingredients it would add to a dish could not be precisely controlled.  So you could never be sure that the dishes would taste good when they were done.  Another problem was that the steam from the cooking could make the spices congeal and jam the works.  It took us till April 25th to solve all the sticky issues and get the machine ready for user taste trials.  One April 25th, 26th and 27th, the Mechanical Chef cooked entire dishes completely unassisted and with repeatable (and delicious) results.

Here’s a full end-to-end recording of one of the cooking runs (the one of April 26th).

 

Write to us if you’d like to drop by and see us.

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Robotics Workshop

On the first day of a three-day workshop, I built a line-follower robot that successfully navigated what the instructor promised was a very difficult course (he said it would be impossible to navigate using a simple on-off algorithm).

The trick I used to complete the course was to run the DC motors on half-voltage and adjust sensor angles so that both always fed the ‘brain’ an excellent set of signals.

I came up with the idea owing to my experience with text analytics. The most critical task in text analysis is feature engineering. With a good set of features, you can get excellent results even if the machine learning algorithm is very simple. Unfortunately, very little work goes into feature engineering and feature combination methods for NLP.

So, I guess my weekend dabbling in robotics taught me an important lesson – no matter how good your machine learning algorithms (the brains of the system) are, they can’t do nothing without eyes.