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Roll Call

MRISAR Institute of Science, Art & Robotics

By Nadia Alvarado

When you hear the term "innovative technology," inclusiveness and humanitarianism probably don't come to mind. Some people may even argue that these concepts are mutually exclusive. If you believe that, there's a family-owned and operated business that would beg to differ.

Each time the Siegel family designs a new product for their business, the MRISAR Institute of Science, Art & Robotics (MRISAR), they take into consideration a variety of questions including does it provide an educational benefit, address a dire need or help others, how will it be disposed of and can it be made with sustainable materials. Located in North Dakota, MRISAR builds world-class educational interactive exhibits and robotics. The majority of day-to-day duties at MRISAR are done by four family members: John Adrian Siegel, Victoria Lee Croasdell-Siegel, Autumn Marie Siegel and Aurora Ann Siegel.

Their customers range from NASA and science centers, to museums and foreign governments. Their creations have been displayed in several prestigious venues and are included in permanent collections of distinguished organizations around the world. MRISAR has also fulfilled requests from royalty, such as an extensive order for the Sultan bin Abdulaziz Science and Technology Center (SciTech) in Saudi Arabia. We were excited and suprised to learn that Jameco parts were used for 70% of the board level electronics, relay sockets and relays in that order, which included two three-finger robot arms, two complicated custom-made robot arms, controls, support electronics and hands-on activities.

"Both Victoria and I suffered unusual hardships while growing up," John said. "Those experiences created a keen sense of compassion as well as humanitarian and environmental awareness within us at an early age. We passed these deep concerns to our children as well."

When deciding to create MRISAR, John and Victoria knew they wanted their values to be the backbone of their business. But, could a business like that survive?

"We used ourselves as an experiment," John said. "We worked on technology, robotics, science and other engineering sciences as a financial base, while we also studied economics, sustainability, environmental stresses, politics, demographics, statistics and all associated factors intently."

MRISAR's innovative approach to research and development led to adaptive technology prototypes for people with disabilities including "facial feature controlled technology." Most electric wheelchairs are designed with basic controls such as joysticks, but with facial feature controlled technology a user's facial movements control a robotic wheelchair. A person who has very limited movement can use their eyebrows and nostrils alone to control a robotic arm on the wheelchair base, enabling the user to maneuver around a room in any direction, pick up and move objects, and print or draw on a vertical surface.

"The robot arms and associated wheelchair mobile bases we have built have the ability to override movements that would put the user or others in danger," John said. "Each design has sensors and other devices that input additional data for the wheelchair to determine what to do and they communicate with the users in simple terms of Boolean logic. They are human augmentations not just electric wheelchairs."

All of MRISAR's exhibits are also designed with adaptations for people with disabilities. For those with learning or visual impairments, exhibits include a voice playback option that speaks its directions for use and the theory behind how it works. The controls are positioned at a height suitable for a person sitting or standing, and do not require precision dexterity.
MRISAR
L-R: Aurora, Autumn, Victoria and John.
Chibi-chan (center) is a rail robot that moves across the ceiling and can serve as a facility's host.


Robot Activity for Scitech
Robot Activity for Scitech


John in MRISAR Robotic Wheelchair
John in an MRISAR Robotic Wheelchair

Whenever possible, exhibits include sound, light and touch elements, colors that are high contrast and directions written in simple, large font. Exhibits that incorporate touch-sensitive synthesizers with LED illuminated elements are especially adaptable for people who have vision, auditory or mental disabilities. MRISAR also has a number of new disability-adapted control systems for public use in exhibits and other applications in development.

A memorable project for MRISAR was a custom order for the 2007 Newline Cinema film The Last Mimzy. If you watch the film, you'll notice two three-finger robot arms appear in several scenes with the Future Scientist character. They built them from scratch in just two and a half weeks to meet the movie's production schedule. It was close, but they met the deadline.


The robot arms used in The Last Mimzy in action

"The Last Mimzy and SciTech came at a time when more of our work strategies were in place, as well as the skill level of our youngest members Autumn and Aurora," John said. "Many special machining devices have been designed and built to help make our work processes safer, more efficient and even more exacting. In our earlier exhibits, each part was individually made, like a custom pair of shoes."

MRISAR began in a 1,500-square-foot building with a vision of balancing business practices with philanthropic ideals while developing and promoting the use of "responsible technologies" in all their projects. More than 20 years later, there's no doubt their experiment more than paid off.

The Siegel family now works in a 36,000-square-foot building that includes robotics and science labs, as well as art studios. Their imaginative creations comprise electronics, optoelectronics, robotics, sensors, electrical engineering, mechanical and electromechanical elements, as well as elements from many other fields of science.

"Our success as a business and a family is our willingness to be versatile and tolerant, and to take on any challenge that is before us with a creative mindset, combined with humanitarian and environmental ideals," said John.

Each family member contributes to the machining, electronics and carpentry of every project. The design to fabrication process at MRISAR typically goes like this: John jots down rough line drawings of a device or exhibit, Victoria evaluates the concepts and adjusts dimensions for graphic design, Autumn or Aurora create a digital 3D rendering and then all four family members work together to build a prototype.

"Jameco's gear motors are in our probe robots, insect robots, educational class robots and most animated details that bring life to such devices," said John. "Many times Jameco parts have been selected for extremely demanding applications. We often choose Jameco over other companies for a number of reasons: quality, durability, selection of components and ease of finding them online, availability of RoHS compliant parts and the clear marks in the Jameco catalog denoting them."

MRISAR skips exterior shell cosmetics – all parts and mechanisms are visible through polycarbonate glass. Their interactive exhibits and handcrafted robots are well known for their educational content, durability and ease of maintenance. To ensure creations last as long as possible, MRISAR derates every component and has been known to provide service long after a warranty expires.

John said the most rewarding part of starting and growing MRISAR has been helping to inspire and educate youth and their families. Looking forward, the Siegel family is developing their first filming project online, an educational and humorous series that takes place in their labs and will include DIY projects, a behind-the-scenes look into MRISAR's unique challenges and adventures, and more.


Chibi-chan in action and a preview of The Myterious Lab of Robotics

In addition to spending more time on educational enrichment through media, MRISAR also plans to use humanitarian-based research and development to tackle – and possibly solve – some of the hardest technical issues of our day.

To learn more, visit mrisar.com or the MRISAR YouTube Channel.
Nadia Alvarado has a master's degree in Journalism from Syracuse University and a bachelor's degree in Economics from San Diego State University. She is originally from San Diego, CA. Her interests include comedy, comic books, board games, movies and watching too much TV.