This New Robot Can Feed You Your Dinner

The robot aims to give people in assisted living facilities more autonomy.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Robots are doing so many things these days particularly in the field of helping those in need like the elderly. Now, researchers at the University of Washington have developed a robotic system that can help feed those who can not feed themselves.


An autonomous feeding system

"Being dependent on a caregiver to feed every bite every day takes away a person's sense of independence," said corresponding author Siddhartha Srinivasa, the Boeing Endowed Professor in the UW's Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

"Our goal with this project is to give people a bit more control over their lives."

Their novel autonomous feeding system is not only quite precise, but it has also been designed to be attached to people's wheelchairs meaning they can be fed wherever they are. But building this system was no easy task.

"When we started the project we realized: There are so many ways that people can eat a piece of food depending on its size, shape or consistency. How do we start?" said co-author Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee, a postdoctoral research associate in the Allen School. 

"So we set up an experiment to see how humans eat common foods like grapes and carrots."

In order to create the novel robot, the team studied a group of volunteers that were told to feed a mannequin using a fork equipped with a sensor to measure how much force they used.

"People seemed to use different strategies not just based on the size and shape of the food but also how hard or soft it is. But do we actually need to do that?" Bhattacharjee said. 

"We decided to do an experiment with the robot where we had it skewer food until the fork reached a certain depth inside, regardless of the type of food."

Combining algorithms 

Quickly they realized that in order for the robot to be an effective feeder they needed to design a skewering and feeding strategy that changed based on the food item. To do this, the researchers combined two different algorithms.


One object-detection algorithm scanned the plate to identify the types of food while the other told the robot the best way to pick up the food. 

"Many engineering challenges are not picky about their solutions, but this research is very intimately connected with people," Srinivasa said. 

"If we don't take into account how easy it is for a person to take a bite, then people might not be able to use our system. There's a universe of types of food out there, so our biggest challenge is to develop strategies that can deal with all of them."

The team is now working with caregivers and patients in assisted living facilities in order to improve their robot. Their vision is not for the robot to replace caregivers but rather to assist them.

"Ultimately our goal is for our robot to help people have their lunch or dinner on their own," Srinivasa said. 

"But the point is not to replace caregivers: We want to empower them. With a robot to help, the caregiver can set up the plate, and then do something else while the person eats."

The most recent study of this ongoing research has been published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

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