The Bouebot: How a Swiss fondue robot is causing a stir
Switzerland's national dish is fondue, a simmering pot of heartwarming melted cheese -- that can now be prepared, stirred up and served by a robot, thanks to some hi-tech wizardry.
A Swiss team has been beavering away on Bouebot, the robotic creation putting a futuristic twist on an Alpine tradition.
Outside in the Rhone glacial valley bisecting Switzerland's southern Valais region, crisp mountain air blows down from the glistening snowy peaks.
But inside Workshop 4.0's headquarters in Sierre, below the Crans-Montana ski resort, the air is hot from Bouebot's whirring servers and thick with the smell of melted cheese.
The robot is set to make its grand debut at the Paris International Agricultural Show, one of the world's major food production trade fairs, which runs from February 26th to March 6th.
Bouebot is for demonstration purposes only and is far from appearing in kitchenware stores.
The entire project costs 250,000 to 300,000 Swiss francs ($270,000 to $325,000, 235,000 to 285,000 euros), with the robot arm alone costing 80,000 francs.
Workshop 4.0 co-director Nicolas Fontaine, 30, who wears a black baseball cap reading "cheese passion", said Bouebot had been nearly two years in the making.
"We wanted to do a... project that combined innovation with Swiss tradition, and fondue was the perfect choice," Fontaine told AFP. "For the Swiss, fondue is emblematic. It's something very emotional too because it's part of our identity, our know-how".
"Fondue is something convivial... it's a nice opportunity to draw people ito talk about robotics and how it can be used."
Whether at home, in a restaurant or in an Alpine cabin, sharing a fondue remains the heart of Swiss social life.
Bouebot is named after the bouebos: teenage boys who spent the summer up in the mountain chalets, helping herdsmen while they took care of making cheese.
READ MORE: How to enjoy cheese fondue like the Swiss
Grate, stir, eat, repeat
Pivoting on six different axes, Bouebot swings into action.
It glugs the right amount of white wine into the "caquelon" pot, then places it under the cheese grater.
The classic fondue mix is called a half-and-half -- an even amount of Vacherin Fribourgeois and Gruyere cheese.
The project's technical manager Ludovic Aymon, using his control pad, manoeuvres the robot arm down towards each cheese triangle, which is lifted up by creating a vacuum on the top.
After shearing off the rind on a circular blade, it starts swiping the underside down the grater.
Back on the heater, Bouebot does some vigorous figure-of-eight stirring as the cheese melts, then wipes off the spoon and sprinkles in some pepper.
It then picks up a metal spike, pierces a piece of bread, swipes it around the caquelon before placing it in a holder for fondue-lovers to try before the gooey cheese drips down.
Aymon said the biggest challenge was to get a precision mechanical robot to cope with imprecise organic material.
The cheese wedges are not perfectly flat, nor the same height, while Vacherin is much softer than Gruyere.
However, there is no chance of the traditional duo being changed for more robot-friendly cheeses -- not if the creators want to stay alive, jokes Aymon.
Rise of the robots
When seeing Bouebot at work, some onlookers are thrilled by the future possibilities for such technology, while others worry about machines encroaching into the human sphere.
"The effect I find the most interesting is fear... that fear of being replaced by something more powerful," Aymon told AFP.
"Robotics should not be to the detriment of human beings. It should help humans. It could help someone cook in the future. It shows that it could be done, for people who can't do it themselves."
With each run-through, Aymon spots tiny modifications to make, requiring yet more slabs from the cheese-stuffed fridge.
"I can't just work with a 3D simulation, like I could with lots of industrial processes. I have to do real tests," the 35-year-old said.
And with every fondue made, the end result must be eaten quickly. "I think I'll never be sick of fondue, but there are times when I just can't stand the smell of cheese in here any longer," Aymon said.