What RoDyMan, the aspiring robot pizzaiolo, taught me

by Enzo Coccia

During the last two years, I met with it a dozen of times: wearing a biokinetic suit, I work the dough disc to make a true Neapolitan pizza while it keeps track of my movements and tries to imitate me manipulating, at the moment, only a silicone pizza.

It is a robot and RoDyMan is its name (Robotic Dynamic Manipulation), diamond point of the research conducted by “Prisma Lab”, the Laboratory of Robotics Research, known across the world, directed by Professor Bruno Siciliano, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at University Federico II of Naples.

As its acronym suggests RoDyMan is the flagship of the dynamic robotic manipulation, it is a robot that will be able to replicate some human activities with a level of dexterity and dynamism never seen before, a five-year project, started on June 1st, 2013, funded by the European Research Council.

The most ambitious one in the field of robotics because RoDyMan will have to learn a nonprehensile manipulation and to handle deformable objects. And is there anything more deformable than the pizza dough? A unique dexterity and flexibility exercise, an excellent training ground for future applications in the medical surgical field, especially for the orthopaedic prosthesis, in the textile industry and, why not, in the food and drink sector!

I am pleased to have been chosen by Professor Siciliano as a “model” for RoDyMan. I have a great responsibility as I have to teach it all the things related to the Neapolitan pizza: the dough grasp, the precision grasp in the toss phase in which you have to grab and release the dough disc while assessing the texture too, the movements between the palm and thumb, the bimanuality and I have to be able to instill the organizational strategy in bimanual tasks as well.

In 5 years, RoDyMan will have to try to reproduce the perception of human movement, an autonomous robot capable of controlling the events flow of a specific activity, responding to and learning from the surrounding environment stimulus, performing high-precision work.

A very demanding challenge! Through its camera with an infrared sensor and sophisticated algorithms, RoDyMan “learns to make the pizza”. I had no idea of how many coordinated movements of the fingers, wrist, arm and shoulder, are needed to prepare the dough disc, to manipulate, garnish and bake it until I met it.

It was the interaction with RoDyMan to make me understand, and know in neurological terms, what for me was just skill, dexterity, in a word a “profession”. And this is helping me a lot in my work as a trainer of young, aspiring pizzaioli… this time in flesh and blood!