NASA Spinoff

Robotics Algorithms Provide Nutritional Guidelines

altThough Ranger NBV is no longer part of an official NASA program, Graves 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.

Product Outcome

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 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,” says Graves. The problem he saw was that the public had no convenient way to make use of this information. “If I could think of one field in which the data and the application of the data are so incredibly removed from each other, it would be nutrition,” he says.

altGraves 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 with all these equations to position the arms and all these controllers to manipulate the arm positions, 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 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 experiment 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,” says Graves.

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

“It’s a different paradigm that has created a different solution.”

Vitabot® is a registered trademark of the Vitabot Network. The Ultimate Mealplan Project™ is a trademark of the Vitabot Network. HBO® is a registered trademark of Home Box Office Inc. Warner Bros.® is a registered trademark of Time Warner Inc. Gold’s Gym® is a registered trademark of Gold’s Gym International Inc.