An Open Source Life

When Gabriella Levine talks about the concept of open hardware, where individuals share ideas and knowledge to push technological innovation, she need only point to her life as an example.

The COO of the robotics company Protei, and a pioneer in robotics and design, Levine designs modular open hardware toolkits for biomimetic robots, like Sneel, an open source, biomimetic, locomotive, aquatic snake robot. That’s right, a robot water snake. It’s used to collect remote environmental data in harsh environments.

Gabriella found her way to the biomimetic robotic field in a winding way that began with her training as a musician.

At Cornell University she trained in her dual loves of piano and biology, but followed her passion for science into cancer research. The field was at first exciting and fulfilling, but one day she said, she found herself alone in a lab surrounded by mice and loneliness set in. She craved the collaboration of passionate people and the creative outlet of piano and set out on a journey into kinetic sculpture and robotics, which brought her to her current vocation – creative technologist, a blend of art and design.

On Sept. 20 Levine will share her journey with the audience at TEDx Navesink: The Next Wave, a locally organized TED event. Levine will share her drive to create something people will be able to use, build upon and proliferate through open hardware.

She’ll discuss how her interest in organic motion drove her into unknown territories of computer programming and electrical engineering where she met people who shared her passion, with whom she could share ideas and learn practical skills.  In her talk she will also share how this growing open source community helps her innovate on her designs.

“I love being about to learn, bounce off ideas and share,” she said. “People get so excited about things; that’s what’s been the most powerful.”

One of the projects Levine has her hands in is Protei, a series of small robotic morphological sailboats created to collect ocean data. She and the group plan to roll out kits in December that will enable any school, individual or organization to build their own Protei and then innovate on it to push the invention’s potential. One of the eventual goals of the project is to use it in the clean-up of oil spills. Levine said Protei will be able to go where humans can’t and will be more effective than current practices.

“It has extreme potential to be ground breaking and world changing,” she said.

Levine just returned from a radical experiment, circumnavigating the world by boat. She was a Fellow of the Unreasonable at Seaaccelerator, exposing Protei to 14 different ports worldwide, while innovating through human-engagement using a design-based approach of the Stanford d. School, and innovating through field research, user-testing, design thinking, and hands-on engagement.  On the journey, she led global hackathons centered around the topic of building DIY aquatic robots.

In this age of intangible careers, spent in meetings and on the internet, Levine is part of a new manufacturing age, once again creating physical, useful things. Levine says it’s one of the aspects she most appreciates about her work with Protei.

“It’s hands on work,” she said, “and at the end of the day you have a boat to put in the water.”