Know What To Do With A Swarming Aerial Robot? Tell Samsung And Cash In

The electronics giant is teaming up with crowdsourcing site Marblar to find precious product ideas among the dusty patent libraries found at places like NASA, UPenn, and other research institutions around the world.

Given the high-profile “patent wars” between Samsung, Apple, Google, and other tech companies in recent years, it’s easy to forget that patents actually have value beyond their utility in a courtroom. Here’s a nice reminder.


Samsung announced today that it’s teaming up with a crowdsourcing site, Marblar, to mine for product ideas within the libraries of patents of a few major research institutions around the world, including NASA, the University of Pennsylvania, and South Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute.

You may be rolling your eyes and thinking, great another “competition” in which a huge, profitable company gets expert unpaid volunteers to do the hard thinking, while only doling out a one-time reward to a few select winners. But Marblar, which we covered in its beta last year, is now setting up a different incentive model to get better use out of the estimated 95% of patents that sit collecting dust on the shelves.

If Samsung develops an idea from the site into a product, then the Marblar users who came up with it–or who Marblar deems to have significantly contributed to refining it–will share in 10% of Samsung’s royalty payments (the patent owner gets the rest, minus another 5% cut for Marblar). “We want to return patents to their intended purpose: to create new products. They shouldn’t be filed and forgotten, or (worse) used as a tool of frivolous litigation,” says Marblar CEO Daniel Perez.

Marblar could work well if it attracts a diverse and expert community who can come up with applications for patents in fields that university “technology transfer offices” might normally ignore or not think about, says , a University of Pennsylvania roboticist who has posted his swarming “autonomous micro-quadrotors” to Marblar and is publicizing a related contest with fellow researchers. He says these offices tend to focus their limited resources on commercializing “home runs” while leaving the “singles and doubles.” “The role of academic researchers is to develop the latest and greatest. Their goal is not to start companies,” he says. (In NASA’s case, it develops advanced technologies for space that could easily be used on Earth, too).

Since Marblar’s launch last year, 14,000 users have signed up, generating 1,200 product ideas for 30 technologies–but, Perez says, the university patent holders weren’t doing much with all the brainstorming. That’s why Marblar is now looking to Samsung and likely other “commercial partners” soon.

You can check out Marblar to see the patents available, which the company says represent $500 million of R&D spending. Perez sees the biggest potential for people who can “mix and match” technologies, such as a NASA sensor and a Penn robot, to create entirely new products. For Samsung, it will be a big benefit to capture crowdsourced knowledge based on patents they can easily license–rather than fighting later in court.


Perez says up to 2,000 technologies will eventually be available on the site over a slow roll out over the next few months. There are about 100 to start right now. Here are a few cool examples:

Swarming Robots

Kumar’s team at UPenn’s GRASP Lab has developed small, autonomous UAVs that weigh less than one kilogram and can operate inside buildings. They can navigate cluttered spaced at zipping speeds up to six meters per second indoors and can figure out their location without GPS. Even more crazily, these robots can move and work together in “swarms.” To see them in action, watch this video or Professor Kumar’s full TED talk last year.

Speech Recognition Through Lip Reading

South Korea’s ETRI is making patents available that improve speech recognition technology by incorporating a video stream of the person speaking. That way, the system can do a much better job differentiating background noise from the words coming from a person’s mouth–thereby avoiding spitting out gibberish text.

A Universal Mounting System

NASA has developed an ergonomic rail mounting system capable of moving and fastening objects over non-flat surfaces with no additional tools. Its been obviously useful in low-gravity space travel, but there could be plenty of Earth applications, too.

A Wristband That Can Detect Finger Motion

There are plenty of systems that aim to recognize hand gestures and sometimes finger gestures to control games and mobile devices. Here is a wristband from ETRI that can detect precise finger movements by measuring structural changes in the “finger flexor tendons,” potentially enabling new forms of hands free human-computer interaction.


A Cheap and Simple Biosensor

From ETRI, a new design for biosensors that are easier to mass manufacture with standard transistors and capacitors, as opposed to today’s nanowires.

An All-Terrain Robot Inspired By A Cockroach

X-RHex is a six-legged robot that, like a cockroach, can walk and even “run” across all kinds of difficult terrain. Legs allow the X-RHex, with its payload of sensors, to go where robots on wheels wouldn’t dare.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire