“Robot Chef Learns to Twirl Pizza Like a Pro”
by Jeanette Beebe
Scientific American, June 2017
Hi, Robin —
I hope this finds you well! I was thrilled to read that you’re inviting pitches for Advances — what a fantastic opportunity!
I initially pitched this idea to Amber (see below). She liked the idea, yet she said it was too early to write up a story. However, I’ve done two days of work on this, and I think I’ve addressed of all of her concerns with this new pitch. There actually have been several updates since October, including a prototype debut at an event in Naples (here are several photos of the actual robot) and a TedX talk! Also, the story hasn’t been reported on in English media yet (that I could find). Looking forward to your thoughts!
Pizza was perfected in Italy. Yet even though renowned pizza chefs regularly visit his lab at the University of Naples, robotics professor Bruno Siciliano isn’t thinking about dinner. Siciliano is fascinated by the physics of pizza-making — especially the art of spinning, tossing, and catching dough. It’s a tricky task for anyone, let alone a robot. The system must follow the object as it moves, and anticipate how it will change shape.
Now, Siciliano is developing a robot nimble enough to stretch and toss a pizza pie. RoDyMan (“a platform for Robotic Dynamic Manipulation”) is a five-year project supported by a €2.5 million grant from the European Research Council
In May — just in time for the April issue! — the pizza maker robot will meet a milestone: learning how to stretch the dough without tearing holes. This is a key moment for the project because the robot will be controlling a non-rigid object (the dough).
If Siciliano’s team achieves this, then RoDyMan will be the first robot that can control and shape a “deformable” object (a type of “dynamic manipulation task”). That’s a big deal, because it’s one of the only physical tasks humans can do that robots can’t.
Siciliano’s work was published in a recent study, which describes how researchers developed the RoDyMan software (platform) to track and manipulate the shape of a flexible material. Sicilano hopes that RoDyMan will learn how to perform every movement a pizzaiolo knows by heart, so he recruited pizza chef Enzo Coccia to wear a suit of bio-kinetic sensors. He got to work, and the computer tracked his movements.
The first prototype debuted in October 2015 at Futuro Remoto in Naples. RoDyMan’s formal launch is set for 2018, at the legendary Pizza Festival in Naples. The robot’s physical form is like a life size human — yet it’s wheels from the waist down, with two arms and two cameras that resemble eyes.
As software, RoDyMan could find a home in other robots responsible for tasks that demand sensitivity and precision. A robot that’s able to be accurate enough to mold pizza dough might eventually be eligible to work in medical settings — for example, as a caretaker, a nurse, or as an assistant in the operating room. (Siciliano also directs the Interdepartmental Center for Advances in Robotic Surgery at the University of Naples.)
I plan to interview Bruno Siciliano, and also one or two secondary sources who work in the field of bio-mimetic robotics. Does this idea sound like it might work for Advances?
Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.
I look forward to hearing from you! Thanks so much.