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Machine vision technology and sophisticated computer software developed by the Meat Industry Research Institute are being teamed up to provide automated meat processing systems.

Researchers in MIRINZ's Electrical Engineering Section are developing optical sensors to "watch" joints, linking the video systems with a computer to generate and interpret the images produced. The resulting information can then be fed to further automated equipment such as boners or brisket cutting machines to guide them.

Measuring the surface profile of a piece of meat and defining it in three dimensions provides valuable information for cutting and boning machines. Mathematical techniques are being used to measure and store the surface co-ordinates of lamb and pork shoulders. Further such techniques are being used to identify the hole in brisket cuts.

Machine vision is being extended into X-ray wave-lengths to spot bones within meat and measure bone dimensions for clean, efficient removal. Distinguishing the bone from the surrounding meat can be difficult, and the researchers have developed a method of spotting the boundary between bone and meat which allows them to identify individual bones and determine landmarks for measurement.

Computer Aided Tomography (CAT) techniques have been helpful in examining the irregular shapes of meat cuts and bones. The three-dimensional X-ray technique is more commonly associated with medical applications.

"Most of the major hospitals now have a CT scanner. However, these are used on human patients and taking carcasses or bits of meat into hospitals for use in such machines is difficult to organise," one of the researchers told a meat industry conference.

An industrial scanner in Australia was used to provide a huge amount of scanned data to be used in design and development of automated meat processing machines. The researchers see a bright future for machine vision and robotic technology in the meat industry, with the capability of the technology increasing and the technology costs decreasing.