Developing NASA’s Ranger Neutral Buoyancy Vehicle provided Joe Graves with the robotics experience he used to create the online nutritional program Vitabot.

Sojourner was perhaps the crowning achievement of the NASA Space Telerobotics Program. The Space Telerobotics Program, a collaboration among Ames Research Center, Johnson Space Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and multiple universities, focused on developing remote-controlled robotics for three main purposes: on-orbit assembly and servicing, science payload tending, and planetary surface robotics. The overarching goal was to create robots that could be guided to build structures in space, monitor scientific experiments, and, scout distant planets in advance of human explorers.

While telerobotics remains a significant aspect of NASA’s efforts, the Space Telerobotics Program was dissolved and redistributed within the Agency. The program produced a host of remarkable technologies and surprising inspirations, including one that is changing the way people eat.

The Space Systems Laboratory (SSL), focusing on space robotics, artificial intelligence, and space simulation, was originally founded at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1976. The lab conducted experiments on large-scale space structure assemblies and telerobotics using Marshall Space Flight Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Simulator, a water tank used to mimic conditions in space. Along with Marshall, SSL spearheaded the 1985 Experimental Assembly of Structures in Extravehicular Activities (EASE) experiment, which studied astronaut proficiency in assembling structures during spacewalks, as well as possible building and maintenance techniques. The success of the EASE experiment boosted interest in telerobotic applications for construction in space. In 1990, SSL moved to the University of Maryland, College Park, where it built a Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility — a 50-foot-diameter, 25-footdeep water tank that became the site of one of the Space Telerobotics Program’s major projects: the Ranger Telerobotic Flight Experiment.

Funded through what was then the Telerobotics Intercenter Working Group, Ranger was SSL’s 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 called the Ranger Neutral Buoyancy Vehicle (NBV). Though Ranger NBV is no longer part of an official NASA program, Joe Graves, who served as a lead engineer for the proejct, has 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.

How it Works

In 2003, Graves founded Vitabot, an online nutrition company headquartered in Beltsville, MD, that uses some of the same robotics and computer science concepts that he developed for the Ranger NBV. 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 is actually used. He noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers complete breakdowns of what composes various foods — far beyond what is offered on food labels — and that the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit division of the National Academies of Science, publishes reports that gather research from around the world to determine nutritional needs.

“On one end, you have the USDA putting out exactly what’s in food, and on the other you have the Institute of Medicine putting out the nutrition you should have,” said Graves. The problem was that the public had no convenient way to make use of this information. 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. 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 were developed between the robot and the operator. The result is an easy-to-use online program 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. Available through corporate wellness programs and health clubs, Vitabot centers around an interactive report card that grades how food choices measure up to users’ nutritional needs in a wide range of categories including calories, fat, electrolytes, minerals, and vitamins. Users can build complete menus of favorite foods that also match their nutritional needs, allowing them to make real, individually tailored use of the previously overwhelming quantities of available nutritional data.

Vitabot’s algorithms guide the users’ choices to help them get complete nutritional balance. The resulting balanced menus are then shared through Vitabot’s Ultimate Mealplan Project, where other users can then modify and improve these menus, guided by Vitabot’s suggestions. “This creates a massive group experience where individuals guided by their own personal tastes and the requirements of the Institute of Medicine, are mapping out an enormous space of carefully balanced meal plans,” said Graves.

Where it Stands

Though the focus of Vitabot is on balanced nutrition and not weight loss, the latter is often a result of the former, Graves said. The company now counts the likes of HBO and Warner Bros. among its nearly 1,000 company clients, and has experienced over 1,500% growth in the health club industry in the last year, with major chains like Gold’s Gym offering Vitabot to its members.

More Information

For more information on the Vitabot software, visit

Medical Design Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the March, 2010 issue of Medical Design Briefs Magazine.

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