3D food printers head for mass production

By the end of the year, 3D food printers will be in people’s homes for the first time, with the first thought to be produced by Natural Machines.

While a few companies have been working on the technology, Natural Machine’s Foodini looks to be the first in an oncoming wave of mass production in 3D food printing.

The Foodini machine is an open capsule model, in which the user places fresh ingredients and then tells the Foodini what to make with them. For example, rather than hand making ravioli from start to finish, you just load the dough and filling into the machine and it will print individual ravioli for you.

3D printed burgers made using a Foodini 3D food printer

3D printed burgers made using a Foodini 3D food printer

The notion behind the machine, and where it fits into average household usage, is to encourage better eating.

According to the Natural Machines website: “Today, too many people eat too much convenience foods, processed foods, packaged foods, or pre-made meals – many with ingredients that are unidentifiable to the common consumer, versus homemade, healthy foods and snacks. But there is the problem of people not having enough time to make homemade foods from scratch.

“Enter Foodini. Foodini is a kitchen appliance that takes on the difficult parts of making food that is hard or time-consuming to make fully by hand. By 3D printing food, you automate some of the assembly or finishing steps of home cooking, thus making it easier to create freshly made meals and snacks.”  

The notion of replacing the hand crafting process of cooking with 3D printing may well seem a strange one, perhaps raising concerns of a reduction of people’s skill and effort. While it is certainly a better option than potentially more suspect ready meals, there is an element to which the idea of machines like the Foodini may detract from the craft of cooking.

However, although it allows those who would not usually be in a position to hand make ravioli to enjoy food they would otherwise not, it may also make it too easy for those who are able to make said food to simply not bother.  

The Foodini 3D food printer. Images courtesy of Natural Machines

The Foodini 3D food printer. Images courtesy of Natural Machines

The worries of excess convenience aside, it is reassuring to see a focus on homemade food and quality eating. And with 3D printing ever developing, a future where we use it to manufacture our meals as well as our homes is perhaps not so far-fetched. As to when you should expect this, it is hard to say.

The Foodini currently sells at $4,000, somewhat above what the average consumer can be expected to spend. Yet if successful, a growing market could see the price steadily come down to the point where, in the future, we may expect every home to utilise 3D printing as a regular part of their cooking.

Natural Machines’ device will be initially released by the end of the year, but the next production batch will not be available until some time in 2017. So if you wish to be a part of the first wave of home 3D food printing, place your order quickly.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.