Robotic drone solution for disinfecting food plants wins prize

Thursday, 06 May, 2021

Robotic drone solution for disinfecting food plants wins prize

The grand-prize winner of this year’s Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize — Human Dynamics — is seeking to improve sanitation in food production plants with a robotic drone called ‘drobot’.

Designed to fly through facilities spraying soap and disinfectant, the company said the robotic drone can help with daily sanitation tasks at food production facilities.

Co-founder Tom Okamoto, a master’s student in MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program, said the average large food manufacturer spends $13 million on sanitation annually. When this is combined with the time sanitation processes take away from production and delays due to human error, his company estimates this solution is tackling an $80 billion problem.

The company’s prototype uses a quadcopter drone that carries a tank, nozzle and spray hose. Underneath the hood, the drone uses visual detection technology to validate that each area is clean, LIDAR to map out its path and algorithms for route optimisation.

The product is designed to automate repetitive tasks while complementing other cleaning efforts currently done by humans. Workers will still be required for certain aspects of cleaning and tasks like preparing and inspecting facilities during sanitation.

The company has already developed several proofs of concept and is planning to run a pilot project with a local food producer and distributor this year.

The Human Dynamics team also includes MIT researcher Takahiro Nozaki, MIT master’s student Julia Chen and Harvard Business School students Mike Mancinelli and Kaz Yoshimaru.

The second-place prize went to Resourceful, which aims to help connect buyers and sellers of food waste by-products through an online platform. The company said there is a growing market for upcycled products made by companies selling things like edible chips made from juice pulp, building materials made from potato skins and eyeglasses made from orange peels. But establishing a by-product supply chain can be difficult.

“Being paid for by-products should be low-hanging fruit for food manufacturers, but the system is broken,” said co-founder and CEO Kyra Atekwana, an MBA candidate at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “There are tens of millions of pounds of food waste produced in the US every year, and there’s a variety of tech solutions … enabling this food waste and surplus to be captured by consumers. But there’s virtually nothing in the middle to unlock access to the 10.6 million tons of by-product waste produced every year.”

Buyers and sellers can offer and browse food waste by-products on the company’s subscription-based platform. The businesses can also connect and establish contracts through the platform. Resourceful charges a small fee for each transaction.

The company is currently launching pilots in the Chicago region before making a public launch later this year. It has also partnered with the Upcycled Food Association, a non-profit focused on reducing food waste.

Other finalists included:

  • Chicken Haus, a vertically integrated, fast-casual restaurant concept dedicated to serving locally sourced, bone-in fried chicken;
  • Joise Food Technologies, which is 3-D printing the next-generation of meat alternatives and other foods using 3-D biofabrication technology and sustainable food ink formulation;
  • Marble, which is developing a small-footprint robot to remove fat from the surface of meat cuts to achieve optimal yield;
  • Nice Rice, which is developing a rice alternative made from pea starch that can be upcycled; and
  • Roofscapes, which deploys accessible wooden platforms to ‘vegetalise’ roofs in dense urban areas to combat food insecurity and climate change.

This was the sixth year of the event, which was hosted by the MIT Food and Agriculture Club. The event was sponsored by Rabobank and MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS).

Image credit: ©

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