What a person needs if a robot is to prepare a meal for them.

Who needs a robot to prepare a meal for them?  According to AgeUK there are 1.6 million malnourished people in the UK. Many of them are elderly and cannot prepare an attractive meal for themselves, and possibly may not even be able to feed themselves. Cooking and feeding is very time consuming for a carer. If the carer is not family and provided by social services or a paid-for care organisation, then the problem begins. But many people have an independent spirit. They would rather struggle on than loose their pride and independence through going into a care home.  There is a vision that with a robotic device to help them they could remain sufficiently self-sufficient in the preparation of food, to remain at home rather than going into care. Perhaps it could be more  a domestic appliance that a robot, but what does it need to do? The person it serves will have one or more disabilities which may be either physical or cognitive or both and also possibly blind or deaf. Their needs vary very widely. One may be able to buy food and eat it unaided, but not be able to do the heating, while another may be able to do little but open their mouth. In general the user’s abilities are likely to be declining. To provide for all users it is therefore necessary that the robot is able to remove the meal from a fridge or freezer, heat it, place it in front of the user, and optionally spoon feed the user under their control. Other tasks such as offering drinks, snacks, drugs, or respiratory assistance are also possible but not considered here as they are comparatively straight forward.


Ready-meals are the basic means by which many frail people feed themselves or are fed. They are attractive, available to satisfy nearly all tastes and needs, and cost far less than home cooked food when the cost of labour is included. A user, new to a robot aid, may already be eating ready-meals supplied regularly to the home, or purchased by themselves or by a carer.  Ready-meals therefore provide the most attractive basis for the robotic preparation of food and are the basis of these notes.

Ready-meals are available from retail outlets or from on-line delivery services. The needs of elderly people are met by a wide variety of attractive meals for both general needs and specialised dietary needs, including pureed meals. The main supplier to this market is Apetito AG who deliver their products both hot as meals-on-wheels through social services, and frozen under the brand name ‘Wiltshire farm foods’. Apetito is a German company and supply over 50 million meals a month to this market internationally.
Ready meals are supplied packaged in plastic trays, often with internal divisions separating for instance meat and vegetables. The trays are vacuum formed from thin sheet CPET plastic and come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Usually one meal supplier uses only a small range of trays. The meal tray is covered with a transparent plastic foil which is removed after the meal has been heated.food_trays_ready_meals

The tray presents three problems to robotic preparation of the meal. 1. The tray softens when hot and often has no opposed surfaces suitable for a robot to grip. 2. When the tray is removed from the oven it has a random orientation due to its rotation in the oven, but it will need reorienting if the tray has internal divisions (most main meals do) which determine in which direction the meal is to be spooned. The user may also be blind. 3. The foil cover must be removed which requires gripping a small foil flap in contact with a corner of the tray and pulling hard.

These problems are completely solved by using a meal carrier, which is a plate with an apeture in which the meal can be secured. Having a rigid rim, the plate makes the meal easy to grip and move. Ratchet teeth on its circular edge make it easy for the robot to nudge the meal into the correct rotational orientation. To remove the foil cover the plate provides a link that can be secured to the cover with a snap fastener, and which has a small strong magnet that the robot can attract to pull the cover off the meal.


Elderly people often live in accommodation of limited size, however a short length of worktop or a table-top are very likely to be available on which can be placed the freezer, oven, robot, and the meal being eaten. The standard worktop is 60cm wide. Worktop freezers and compact microwave ovens fit on this surface and are cheap (< £100) so a pair may be purchased to suit the needs of the robot.

The layout of the items on the worktop needs to be compact, and must also avoid the possibility of contact between robot and user. It must allow the user, who may be immobile, to see into the appliances in order that he/she can retain as much control and dignity as possible. There is only one layout that meets these needs which is shown in the video. The appliances face each other, angled outward for visibility, and with the robot located between them. The geometry may be optimised to minimise the necessary length of the robot arm. In the video a template board defines the positions of the appliances and the robot through dowels that fit the appliances. Then these relatively light devices cannot roam from their preferred positions under vibration.

User interface

The way the user informs the robot of his/her needs will vary widely depending on the ability and the inclination of the user. As a minimum, commands to choose a particular meal, and to initiate the offering of a spoonful of food seem necessary. At the other extreme the user might wish to have full control over the robot motion. In practice, something in-between will be usual. The technology by which the command is given must be determined by the user. Technology to use the voice is now readily available through the mobile and the cloud, and seems likely to be favourite. At the other extreme the TV remote, which is used in the video, is cheap and convenient.


These needs taken together defined the design of the robot, the control software, the meal carrier and the arrangement of the components shown in the video.

Answering a national challenge for robotic care of the elderly.

The British Government, through InnovateUK, challenged the nation to devise robotic technology to help elderly people live as independantly as possible. This project has devised a simple robot to prepare frozen ready meals, but its simplicity is solely due to a special plate, highlighted in the first video. This simplifies several difficult tasks for the robot.


Now the full story. First here is the full video, this time focussing on the robot itself. See how the robot is unable to reach the user, and notice that the whole arrangement is compact and could easily fit into the compact kitchen of an elderly user.

As you have seen, this simple robot using the special plate can prepare a ready meal and help you eat it. You tell it what to do.  You press a button, or perhaps talk to your phoneand it does it for you. There may be other things it can do for you too. No need to be frightened, as it is very safe and cannot move from where it is. You may not need a robot to do these things for you, but there are many people who do.

This may seem like science fiction, but the video was made in my home with no special effects, and the robot made of simple cheap componants is a working prototype that I call Nellie. With many further improvements, simple low cost robots will be able to do these things and more.

I am a Remap volunteer, and Nellie has been a hobby project, but at Naidex 2017 she came out !  Tell me what you think, and please tell me what needs to be improved.

E-mails to john.s.heath@ntlworld.com

About Nellie

So Nellie is a robotic device to prepare frozen meals and feed a person with disability.

Elderly and disabled people who need a carer in their daily living, often prefer to live as independently as is possible for them. When they need help in preparing food and feeding, their independence is seriously reduced, as such care is particularly demanding of a carer’s time. Nellie is intended to help such people to regain independence in their eating.

Nellie sits on a table between a small freezer and a microwave oven. When asked she opens the appliance doors, moves frozen meals from the freezer to the oven, and operates the oven. When the meal is hot and ready she can re-orient it, if necessary, before moving it to the table and removing the foil cover. She picks up a spoon from a magazine, and then feeds the user under their control. The user chooses which morsel to eat next. The feeding  is similar to existing assistive feeder products. Nellie can also offer a drink from a non-spill cup, and might dispense other consumables if required. Nellie is controlled at present through a TV remote. She could be controlled by voice through a mobile phone, or any other device and can be connected to the internet.

Nellie is safe to use, as being light and not fixed to the table she cannot exert a big force without falling over. Another safety feature is that she only pushes hard when needed, such as opening a door or lifting a meal. Nellie uses sensors to find a dish, check her grip, and look for obstacles and the user.

Frozen meals are marketed sealed into plastic trays. For hygiene the meal must be heated in the tray, and the foil seal should be removed after heating. To help her do this, and to help her manage the floppy hot tray, Nellie uses a meal carrier. The carrier is a stiff rim that supports the meal, which is designed to help Nellie find, lift, and rotate, and to remove a foil cover from the meal.

Nellie can be connected to the internet, so she can become part of a caring smart home, and networks of care.

Nellie is designed so that she could be mass produced cheaply, but today Nellie is just a lonely prototype. Her parts were factory made, and assembled at home. Further development of the idea will be aimed at making her more reliable, quieter, move more smoothly, connect to the internet, and with improvements hopefully recommended by people like you who see her in action. So Nellie needs to know what you like about her, and what you don’t like, and what improvements you recommend. Child robots could be provided to organizations that would help in their upbringing and development.


Weight: 3 kg               Reach: 0.5 metres

Lift: 0.5 kg at 0.5 metres

Input:  TV remote I2C or voice by mobile/internet.

Power: 15V 3A max. Standard laptop computer power supply

Patents applied for.

Technology: Sheet steel body, synchronous motors, control Arduino Mega

Childhood of a robot

This is the post excerpt.

This is as a hobby project. As a Remap volunteer I make gadgets, usually quite simple, to help people of disability remain independent. As an engineer with IBM, I invented and developed often complex mechanisms for hard disk and printer products. When I learned that the government were promoting innovative devices to enable frail elderly people to remain living independently at home, I decided to do what I could to develop a gadget, a simple sort of robot perhaps, that could help. Malnutrition is a big problem among the elderly and it appeared to me that a device to move plates between a fridge and a microwave, and to spoon feed a person are within the range of a skilled and experienced hobby engineer. I had noticed that elderly people often buy frozen ready-meals and enjoy eating them. That would simplify what the robot needed to do but involved re-orienting the meal after it is spun in the microwave, and removing the foil cover while hot. I decided to focus on meals produced by Apetito who market vast numbers of meals each month internationally, and in Britain through “Meals on wheels” and “Wiltshire farm foods” outlets.

As the robot, now called Nellie, learned the necessary skills, I contacted organizations that might help me, but they were not interested, perhaps because they did not believe a robot could do what Nellie could now do.  When I learned that Remap had a stand at Naidex this year, I asked if she could be shown there,  to see if anyone in the care industry thought that she might be useful. So here she is showing some of her skill on video. Just a prototype, not a product. Could she be useful? What do you think? Let me know at:  john.s.heath@ntlworld.com.



Going forward!

So I hope you can see that preparing meals is well within the capabilities of a cheap simple robot, but the device you have seen demonstrated is just a prototype. It is far from being a product. A product as well as needing an attractive appearance, would have to meet safety, hygiene, and durability standards. It would also need to be quieter and more refined in its operation. It also would need to be integrated into the IT systems that will be the basis of the smart careing homes planned for the future. But more inportantly than these, the design needs to be refined to incorporate the best advice of the professionals who manage the caring services of the nation.

So we need the help of the adult Social Services in the UK which unfortunately are fragmented between many regional and local authorities, and which are very hard pressed meeting each days needs as it comes. Finding this help is my major work item at present.

When it becomes clear how such a device could serve a useful purpose, then a small team of engineers will be needed  to take the design from a prototype to a product for manufacture, involving testing to make sure that the intended purpose will be achieved in its users homes. Finally then manufacturing and marketing channels will be needed to deliver the device.