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Modern pizza originated in Italy during the late 18th century as a cost-effective food for members of the working class. It had few ingredients, and common toppings such as tomatoes were cheap and widely available, while the more affluent turned their noses up at this suspicious new fruit from the Americas. Now, pizza has crossed class lines to become a beloved food worldwide, and becoming a pizzaiolo, or pizza chef, is a professional specialty. There are many skills that go into making pizza—dough must be kneaded, tossed, and stretched to create the perfect shape. Once in the oven, the pizza must be consistently and carefully turned to achieve the desired crust texture.

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Dr. Bruno Siciliano and his team at PRISMA Lab recognized this set of skills as an opportunity to advance robotics technology. Both humans and robots are able to grip and hold rigid objects by applying constant pressure. However, humans can also interact with objects in a variety of ways that don’t require gripping—including the ways a pizza dough is prepared and handled. This requires a person to have a preconceived and continuous idea of how the object will respond to touch. They must also adjust the angle and pressure of their hands on the object accordingly as they work. To develop technology with these capabilities, PRISMA Lab set out to create RoDyMan (RObotic DYnamic MANipulation), a robot tasked with becoming a pizzaiolo. If RoDyMan could learn to make a pizza, from dough to serving plate, the results would unlock potential for robotic help in healthcare, home aide, and other service settings.

To prepare for success, RoDyMan learned from the best. Well-known maestro pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia wore a 3D motion-capture suit while making his pizza, recording his movements for RoDyMan to observe and imitate. With this expert guidance, was RoDyMan able to make the pizza?

At the conclusion of the project in May 2019, RoDyMan had accomplished several of the necessary tasks, including applying the sauce and navigating the pizza into the oven. However, tossing the dough thwarted the robot, who was only able to get it 10 cm into the air, compared to the world’s highest recorded toss at a whopping 6.52 m.

Still, the project made a lot of headway toward the goal of creating robotic technology for manipulating non-rigid objects. In addition to developing pizza making skills, RoDyMan also learned to conduct an orchestra. Yet, despite all of these technological breakthroughs, it looks like pizzaiolos and conductors have job security for now.

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Gastronomica, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Winter 2015), pp. 1-5
University of California Press
Scientific American, Vol. 316, No. 6 (JUNE 2017), p. 22
Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc.