At Travis Air Force Base, in Fairfield, Calif., the U.S. military has just installed a new piece of robotic technology. It’s not a killing machine, or a piece of armor, or even really anything associated with war or defense. The new robot makes salad.
Perched on a counter surrounded by tubs of ingredients in the base’s dining hall, the robot swivels around and grabs utensils with one arm, scooping lettuce and tomatoes into a bowl in the other. It’s automating a relatively straightforward kitchen duty in a cafeteria that regularly serves hundreds of people a day—and is beginning to show how kitchens of the future could be reshaped by robotic cooking technology.
The salad making robot is called Alfred, and it was built by Dexai Robotics. The company just got a $1.6 million contract with the Department of Defense to install 10 Alfreds in military dining facilities around the U.S. Its first, at Travis Air Force Base, creates salads for grab-and-go food service for the base’s active duty personnel.
“They have roughly a thousand people that come through there a day. So they’re serving a lot of food to hungry individuals,” says David Johnson, Dexai’s cofounder and CEO. The Alfred robot is a way to speed up the process of serving those people. It’s also a way to fill in a labor gap.
“When we first started [the company], there was a huge labor problem already in the industry, and this was two to three years ago,” says cofounder Anthony Tayoun. For military bases, that’s led to private contractors operating dining halls for limited hours a day, and military personnel filling in when those contractors are off the clock—and that’s when there’s even enough workers to take on the contractors’ shifts. The pandemic has only heightened the challenge. “Right now there simply aren’t enough people to fill all the roles kitchens need,” says Tayoun. “That’s true for the military, that’s true for the corporate cafeteria in your workplace, it’s true for schools, it’s true for your neighborhood restaurant.”
Mimicking the movements of actual chefs, the robot uses AI and computer vision to manipulate utensils and grab predetermined amounts of salad ingredients, combining them into a bowl and packaging them for sale.”It allows us to cook in the same way that they do, so we don’t change the process,” Johnson says. Using utensils the way a human does, he says, is important for making food turn out the way people expect. Cooking differently, he says, “changes the taste, sometimes in a big way, sometimes in a small way… It has done hundreds of thousands of trials of learning how to scoop tomatoes, learning how to scoop lettuce. You would not believe how easily you can bruise arugula,” says Johnson.
The robots will initially focus on making salads, but Tayoun says the goal is the gradually expand the robot’s capacity, depending on each dining hall’s needs. “We’re starting with salads, but soon enough we’ll be making tacos, and more,” he says.
As a solution to a labor shortage issue, the robot has increasing relevance. But Tayoun says it also portends a bigger shift in how commercial kitchens look and function. “Looking ahead, there will be impacts for the way kitchens are designed,” he says. “Simple things like having the robot being able to reach chicken if it’s in a fridge before putting it on a grill as opposed to having it in a place that’s far away from where the grill is.”
He envisions the robots being integrated into how chefs develop new dishes, with new ways of cooking enabled by the robot itself. That could be a robot arm adjusting a recipe mid-preparation from inside an oven, or combining incredibly hot ingredients more safely than a human could. The robots could even be integrated into kitchens in a more workaday mode, such as one stationed inside a walk-in fridge doing the prep work of a sous chef.
“You don’t want someone sitting inside the walk-in fridge chopping carrots,” Tayoun says. “But the robot doesn’t care.”