Member Stories

Making the Invisible Visible

Featuring Honeybee Robotics & Nanotronics Imaging

“I have to leave early because I’m going to participate in sending commands to the Curiosity Rover on Mars,” Steven Gorevan says politely as I affix a lavalier microphone to his black golf shirt. Coming from anyone else this might sound like a ridiculous excuse but, as the chairman and cofounder of Honeybee Robotics, it seems reasonable. Gorevan is the kind of guy you feel lucky to interview, someone you’d hope to corner at a party. He’s unassuming, easy to talk to, and able to speak plainly about the mechatronics technology he and his company are contributing to interplanetary and terrestrial exploration. The envelope of visual and physical discovery of our known universe is the stuff of daily life for Gorevan. “I have sent commands to Mars in my bathrobe,” he offers, “I sometimes have my dog next to me and I pray that he doesn’t make a noise when it’s my turn to speak and usually he’s been pretty good I just go ‘shhhh’ and he doesn’t say anything.”

Though it’s complete speculation on my part, I suspect that at the time of our interview on September 18, Gorevan probably knew something about NASA’s forthcoming announcement of the discovery of the presence of flowing water that would follow 10 days later. He kept it to himself, but offered: “Mars has the best chance of finding evidence for past or present life. And I think with these rovers, the Phoenix lander, Pathfinder, and starting out maybe with the Viking landers in the late 70s, this will be viewed some day as a golden age of space exploration and will be marveled at.”

Over the last 25 years, Honeybee robotics has swept a significant amount of dust off the intangible. Known for developing a significant portion of the investigative appendages and machinery on the Curiosity rover, the firm created rock abrasion and dust removal tools, as well as a sample manipulation system that sits within the belly of the rover and operates like a remote lab for life-detection and geologic analysis. Honeybee’s contribution to the overall picture of the terrain and topology of our nearest neighbor was a collaboration with several teams at JPL and had to be crafted and tested from scratch.

Mars has the best chance of finding evidence for past or present life. With these rovers, the Phoenix lander, Pathfinder, and starting out maybe with the Viking landers in the late 70s, this will be viewed some day as a golden age of space exploration…

This work is Honeybee’s wheelhouse according to Jason Herman, vice-president of Robotics and Automation technology. “We’ve become known as the company you go to when there’s no off the shelf solution. That’s what people bring us.” A brief look at some of the projects currently under development confirms his claim. From reaction and momentum wheels for storing energy on spacecraft to pipe inspection robots to surgical robots, the company is completely undaunted by the seemingly impossible. Whether it be robotic manipulation of rocks 225 million kilometers away or aiding the process of drilling deep in the Antarctic, an outcome of Honeybee’s arsenal of innovations seems to be that of advancing the prosthetics of seeing and touching.

At the other boundary of visibility, the universe of tiny things, New Lab member Nanotronics Imaging is turning the telescope towards the atom, so to speak. By developing graphic interfaces that enable users to walk through areas so small and expansive they rival the scale of the known universe outside earth’s boundary, Nanotronics is in essence turning molehills into virtual mountains. They’re taking the previously unseen universe, that which immediately surrounds and constitutes our physical reality, and pioneering the implementation of optical instrumentation for rendering nano-scale topography and making it navigable.

Putman, the firm’s cofounder, uses an analogy to explain what Nanotronics’ technology makes possible: “What we do with our tools is look over an area that’s two hundred millimeters in size and we take many many images and put them together. We then put this into an environment that you can actually move through.” The result he says, is something like “noticing you’re crossing terrain, you’re walking on the surface of Mars. We’re basically providing tools to see the topography of the material universe that people have actually never been able to see before.”

The equivalent of inhabiting Mars – on a nano scale – would be building things from the atomic scale so that you have a factory that is only as large as the thing you build. Imagine a car factory that is the same size as the car that is being built.

Putman sees Nanotronics as being part of a larger discovery paradigm that’s going to dramatically increase our knowledge across the sciences, something that will expand exponentially over the coming years the way Moore’s law has predicted computational ability within chip manufacturing.

It’s groundbreaking technology, but with very practical applications. Nanotronics’ nSpec and nPath imaging products are going to be applied in everything from screening for E. coli bacteria in meat inspection, catching surface abnormalities and defects in rubber manufacturing, to spotting cancer cells much earlier than was previously possible.

Despite pointing their respective investigative lenses in opposite directions, Nanotronics Imaging, and Honeybee Robotics are both involved in a similar pursuit: Not just making the invisible visible, but also making the untouchable, touchable, and the incomprehensible the soon-to-be familiar.