Scottish research project success unveiled

A pioneering research project to determine the eating quality of meat has cleared another hurdle on the route to commercial reality after the successful trial of its cutting-edge robot at a Scottish abattoir.

The ground-breaking three-year Integrated Measurement of Eating Quality (IMEQ) project is expected to benefit the red meat industry by up to £5m per annum due to the added value and efficiency gains generated by the future commercialisation of this type of automated approach.

The project uses automated robotic technology similar to that utilised by the high-precision motor industry to determine carcase pH and temperature using surface-based ultrasound probes located at different positions on the carcase, as well as using automatic means of measuring meat colour, carcase fat and eating and nutritional qualities. These measures are being integrated with a video image analysis (VIA) system, resulting in a new process for use on the line in abattoirs.

It is hoped that this could lead to the development of a system which is faster, less labour-intensive, less expensive and delivers new information that would be of great benefit to the industry – namely a consistently high-quality product.

A robotic manipulator, with special end-of-arm tools, is being used to provide automated measurements at line speed at the meat plant. The camera scans the carcase, allowing the robot to place the pH/temperature probe into the target muscle in the half-carcase on-line.

A number of pH/temperature electrodes have been evaluated and a suitable, robust probe has been selected for the end-of-arm tool on the robot. This has been combined with an ultrasound probe which allows automatic, rapid measurement of subcutaneous fat.

Meat eating quality is being assessed through the use of novel imaging technologies, which use spectroscopic methods to determine the texture and composition of the meat.

The project, co-funded by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and the Scottish government and delivered by a consortium of partners led by the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC), is now in its final year.

Professor Charlotte Maltin, science and innovation manager with QMS, said: “The ability of the robotic manipulator to work effectively at line speed is crucial to the success of this project and we are delighted this is proving possible in a practical working environment.”

Dave Ross, senior research engineer, sustainable livestock systems group, SAC said: “A priority since moving the robot onto the processing line has been looking closely at the technical robustness and intelligent autonomy of the system.

“The automation system and sensors are now being used successfully in a real-time environment to assess the overall performance of the system in measuring meat and carcase quality-related parameters. The project is moving into a validation trial phase through the remainder of 2012 and early 2013.

Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead said: “It is great news  that our investment in securing a viable future for the beef sector in Scotland is being rewarded. The IMEQ system will help to give the consumer confidence that the meat they purchase will meet their expectations on both quality and taste – a winning combination.”

Initially the project has been focused on beef, but the leaders intend to widen this to lamb and pork in due course,

>QMS research project installs robotics into abattoir