A robotic crab
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A robotic crab

Aug 05, 2023

The granting of a patent for a fast — and fancy — way to butcher crab has global fish processors knocking on the door of the St. John's-based Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI).

"We're doing something that nobody else in the world is doing," said Robert Verge, managing director of CCFI.

"It's a very significant development, not just because of the patent, but because this is a real breakthrough in fish processing technology worldwide."

Verge and his team applied for a patent two-and-a-half years ago — and got the good news in April — but Verge's idea started years before that, in 2010.

There had to be a better way to extract crab meat, and how to do that was what he wanted to figure out.

"We did extract meat many years ago but it was a very labour intensive process and that process eventually was done in China," Verge said.

"We knew we would have to compete with low-cost labour if we wanted to do it. So we thought we had to come up with an automated system to extract the meat."

Verge assembled a team of engineers to see if they could crack the crab meat case.

And over the the past several years, they've developed a sophisticated robotics system to be used in fish plants.

"Crab goes down the conveyor and there is a camera that takes a picture and analyzes the image of the crab to determine its characteristics and then gives instructions to what's called a pick and place robot that then picks up the crab and puts it in a fixture," Verge explained.

Once the crab is in the fixture, another camera takes an image of the outer shell. A computer analyzes the image and gives instructions to a robot equipped with a saw that then cuts the legs off. The entire process happens at lightning speed.

Watch the robotic crab-cutting machine in action.

Verge said while he can claim credit for the idea and for assembling the team, he has the highest praise for the engineers that made the machine a reality.

"They did some fabulous engineering work that I think will stand up to anything in the world and we now have a system that proves that and we have the patent to show for it."

The centre has applied for patents in 10 other countries and expects those could be issued soon as well.

"For us that's pretty exciting. We do expect patents from other other jurisdictions very soon. But the fact that we've gotten the first one is of course a significant milestone," said Verge.

The crab cutter is versatile, too, said Verge.

While it's designed specifically for snow crab — because that's the principal product in Newfoundland and Labrador — the machine is adaptable to other crab species and potentially other types of shellfish.

While CCFI doesn't sell the technology it develops, it does license to others who can manufacture the units and then sell them to industry.

According to Verge, interest is high, including from international markets.

"We have already had inquiries from equipment fabricators and other countries interested in the technology and wanting to work with us — not only on fabricating it, and making it available in other places — but also in working with us to develop robotic solutions to other fish production problems," he said.

Verge believes there's great potential for more robotics technology at CCFI.

"This is really just the start of something rather than the end of something," he said.

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Jane Adey hosts CBC's Land and Sea. She formerly hosted CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now and On The Go.

Watch the robotic crab-cutting machine in action. Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador