A NASA robotics program inspired one engineer to apply his expertise to helping people eat healthier.
From Robotics to Nutrition
On July 5, 1997, a small robot emerged from its lander like an insect from an egg, crawling out onto the rocky surface of Mars.
About the size of a child’s wagon, NASA’s Sojourner robot was the first successful rover mission to the Red Planet. For 83 sols (Martian days, typically about 40 minutes longer than Earth days), Sojourner—largely remote controlled by NASA operators on Earth—transmitted photos and data unlike any previously collected.
Sojourner was perhaps the crowning achievement of the NASA Space Telerobotics Program, an Agency initiative designed to push the limits of robotics in space. Telerobotics—devices that merge the autonomy of robotics with direct human control—was already a part of NASA’s efforts; probes like the Viking landers that preceded Sojourner on Mars, for example, were telerobotic missions.
One of the Space Telerobotics Program’s major projects was called the Ranger Telerobotic Flight Experiment. Ranger was an effort to produce a free-flying robot capable of assisting astronauts with tasks such as structural repairs, assembly, and on-orbit refueling. The lab developed a test robot for underwater operation—the Ranger Neutral Buoyancy Vehicle (NBV).
“Ranger was designed to easily transition from water to space,” says Joe Graves, who served as a lead engineer for Ranger NBV. “We were trying to determine how a robot could be helpful to human operations.”
Graves has since moved on to a new project, one that leverages the telerobotics experience he developed from the Ranger program to help revolutionize an entirely different field: nutrition.
Bridging the Gap
In 2003, Graves founded Vitabot, an online nutrition company headquartered in Beltsville, Maryland, that uses some of the same robotics and computer science concepts that he developed for the Ranger NBV—in this case, to offer a product that helps customers determine and maintain their ideal diet. Graves hit on the idea when he noticed the disconnect between the vast amounts of nutritional data available to the public and how that data can be conveniently used.
Graves realized this challenge was similar to one he faced with the Ranger NBV. The robot has more than 20 computers controlling different joints, navigation systems, and thrusters, all requiring complex data to manipulate.
“We had this enormously intricate system, but as the human operator, I don’t want to think about all that,” he says. “I just want to reach out and grab something.” For the Ranger NBV, the solution was to create intelligent software to mediate between the operator and the robotics data. Graves saw the same idea could work for nutrition.
“Vitabot uses the exact same style of algorithms that we developed between the robot and the operator,” says Graves. The result is an easy-to-use online program—available through corporate wellness programs and health clubs—that allows users to set health goals like desired weight and then plan balanced meals using a food database featuring tens of thousands of choices.
The company now counts the likes of HBO and Warner Bros. among its clients, with major chains like Gold’s Gym offering Vitabot to its members. The U.S. Air Force has started using Vitabot at several of its bases.
Graves credits Vitabot’s unusual origins for much of its success. Most nutritional planning systems do not come out of a space program, he says.
To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original article