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Knife-wielding robots to debone chickens at superhuman speed

Poultry deboning machine
Gary Meek / Georgia Tech Research Institute

Robots are more than capable of painting cars, firing rivets and doing other mechanical tasks, but it seems that cutting up a chicken properly presents quite a challenge. The Georgia Tech Research Institute hopes to change all that with a chicken-deboning robot that slices meat from the bone faster and more efficiently than any human can.

The problem is that every chicken is different, and while experts can tell at a glance where to cut, when and which way to turn the blade, and how much force to exert, robots aren't quite as sensitive. Gary McMurray is the head of GTRI's Food Processing Technology Division, and presides over the Intelligent Cutting and Deboning System project. It's essentially a robotic hand and knife that can see in 3-D and sense when and how to cut up each individual chicken.

One robot arm holds the bird while a computer vision system contemplates its contours. After determining the depths and locations of joints, bones, and so on, it goes to work. The knife itself only makes simple cutting movements, but the arm holding the chicken can move freely, and they work together to debone with what McMurray hopes will be unprecedented precision and speed, as he explains in GTRI's press release:

Our statistics research shows that our external measurements correlate very well to the internal structure of the birds, and therefore will transition to ideal cutting paths. In our prototype device, everything is registered to calibrated reference frames, allowing us to handle all cut geometries and to precisely align the bird and the cutting robot.

It's no niche business, either: The poultry industry comprises some $20 billion of Georgia's agriculture business, and tiny variations in efficiency are worth millions to processing plants. And robots could do it more safely as well as more quickly; with bone-sensing algorithms and millimeter precision, bone chips and other mistakes could be a thing of the past.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website is coldewey.cc.