Technology often takes circuitous paths. A magnetron developed for precision bombing during World War II led to the microwave oven, and a battery-powered drill created for collecting samples of Moon rock gave birth to the Dustbuster. Likewise, one student’s NASA experience with autonomous robotic vehicles has informed the creation of one of the world’s most sophisticated coffee machines.
In 2006, Matt Walliser, now chief engineer at San Francisco-based Blossom Coffee, took on an internship at the Carnegie Mellon Innovations Laboratory at NASA Research Park, part of Ames Research Center. He was a high school student at the time, but continued his summer work at the lab and at Ames’ Exploration Aerial Vehicles (EAV) Laboratory for the following three summers while working toward his mechanical engineering degree at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. “Matt was unusually gifted at robotics, especially fast prototyping,” said Corey Ippolito, flight data systems engineer at Ames, who ran both labs during Walliser’s time there. “He designed mechanical structures, designed solid models in [computer-aided design], and would take these designs to a local machine shop and fabricate them. He was very good at embedded software development.”
It was his work on proportional-integral- derivative (PID) controllers that laid the foundation for the key component in Blossom’s coffeemakers, Walliser said. PID control continually monitors and corrects the output of a controlled system through error feedback. The technology is common on rockets, missiles, and other aircraft.
“It’s used pretty heavily in industrial robotics and any kind of precision system,” said Walliser. PID systems keep the MAX 5A Unmanned Ground Vehicles and the EAV rovers moving at a constant speed even as they traverse rough, uneven terrain. In Blossom’s coffeemakers, the technology is used to hold temperatures constant in both the water boiler and brew group.
The Ames laboratories also provided Walliser with his introduction to embedded communications, the frameworks that allow different components within the same device to communicate with each other, chip to chip. “Certainly, what I did at NASA exposed me to a lot of these concepts of embedded development I used for Blossom,” said Walliser.
In the coffeemakers, which are Wi-Fi-enabled, embedded communications are used to synchronize brewing processes with recipes stored in the cloud. Walliser also used this knowledge base to write his own stripped-down operating system for the machines, one that he said is faster and more reliable than Android. Blossom Coffee was formed in 2011, after now-president Jeremy Kuempel approached Walliser with the idea for a high-end, precision coffeemaker.
The main problem to solve was temperature control. Coffee made from the same beans can taste significantly different when brewed at different temperatures. “Most coffee machines will control the temperature within 5 to 10 degrees, but the average coffee drinker can tell the difference between coffees brewed as little as 2 degrees apart,” Walliser explained.
Blossom’s machine, called the Blossom One Brewer, controls the average temperature to within one degree. It also keeps all the coffee grinds within 10 degrees of each other, regardless of their place within the brewing basket, and it automatically corrects heating and fluid delivery for altitude, barometric pressure, and ambient temperature. All this is accomplished using the PID control-loop technology Walliser learned at Ames.
Tight temperature controls allow the user to consistently produce the same brew. They also let the machines change temperature from one cup to the next within a few seconds. Recipes for different beans can be shared and downloaded via the Internet and implemented more or less automatically.
Walliser calls the coffeemakers “semiautomatic,” noting that while they control temperature and extraction time, the grind and the stirring time are in the hands of the barista, making the brewing process flexible.
The first prototype Blossom Limited machines went on sale in 2013 for $11,111. By early 2015, the company had set up production in Japan, and was offering the Blossom One for about half the price of the prototype. The current product is a single-cup brewer marketed to cafés and coffee shops, but the company hopes to also offer a home version.