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NASA spinoffs: Bringing space tech to Earth

The new year is a time of taking stock.  For NASA that means, at least in part, release of the 2016 edition of Spinoff, a publication produced by its Technology Transfer Program that describes the latest crop of technologies that have come out of the nation’s space program and entered Earth-based markets.

The 244-page report is impressive for both the number and variety of technologies developed, though it includes products that were actually spun out of NASA as many as 10 or 12 years ago.  That’s understandable, because many technologies developed by NASA a decade ago are only now being marketed. 

While it’s not clear just how many of the more than 50 highlighted tools are really brand-spanking new, the list is nevertheless remarkable. Among the more interesting of the technologies related to computing are:

Aircraft design software

Designing aircraft and other complex systems requires coordination of efforts by specialists in multiple engineering fields, including structures, aerodynamics, propulsion, materials, etc. 

In 2010, programmers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio began developing OpenMDAO, an open-source platform for researchers in different fields to combine their analyses.  While OpenMDAO was released to the public in 2011, it received ongoing development from NASA and private-sector companies and is currently being employed not only in the aeronautics industry but also by engineers developing wind turbines.  The platform’s developers are also coordinating a NASA-funded, multi-university project to design a next-generation aircraft that, in theory, will burn 70 percent less fuel than a Boeing 737.

A decision-support system for rice growers

When global food prices spiked in late 2007, followed almost immediately by a worldwide recession, a partnership of countries, including the United States, launched the Group on Earth Observations’ Global Agricultural Monitoring (GEOGLAM) initiative. 

That effort received a major boost in 2014, when the Rice Decision Support System (RDSS) was launched.  Using satellite data -- much enhanced by the launch of Landsat 8 in 2013, which covers Earth’s surface every 16 days, and captures data in nine visible, near-infrared, and shortwave infrared bands, as well as two thermal infrared bandwidths -- RDSS incorporates measures of rice fields, yield modeling and weather forecasts to generate information in real time about rice coverage, growth stages, deviation from normal and expected yield around the globe.

RDSS was developed by Applied Geosolutions, a New Hampshire-based company, with funding from NASA. According to NASA, RDSS now supports the GEOGLAM initiative, helping it to supply producers, buyers and investors around the world with more comprehensive information about rice crops.  In addition, RDSS monitors which farms worldwide are employing sustainable crop-management practices.

Sensor web for natural hazards

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working together on a four-year pilot project, launched in 2012, to develop a network of sensors to provide advance warning of weather events in Southern California:  the Next-Generation Real-Time Geodetic Station Sensor Web for Natural Hazards Research and Applications.

As part of the project, 37 GPS stations have been added to NOAA’s meteorological GPS network in Southern California. These terrestrial stations calculate the moisture content of the air by measuring the time it takes for signals from the GPS satellite network to reach them.  (The amount of moisture in the atmosphere affects the travel time of GPS signals.)  With that data, forecasters can predict the direction and amount of precipitation.

The system currently broadcasts moisture data to weather forecasters every half hour, though the team is working to bring the broadcast interval down to every five minutes.

Single-photon lidar

Lidar -- light radar -- has been used for mapping terrain for years. But Sigma Space Corp. recently built on NASA patents to develop a single-photon Earth-imaging technology that can split a single laser beam into 100 low-power beamlets, firing at the rate of 32,000 pulses per second from the plane carrying the device. With this technology, the lidar generates a 100-pixel, three-dimensional image with every pulse, which is then processed into a contiguous, high-resolution image by an optical scanner matched to the aircraft’s ground speed. As a bonus, the new lidar uses only a fraction of the energy required by conventional lidar.

Glasses-free 3D for pilots, gamers

NASA is working with Dimension Technologies Inc. -- a company based in Rochester, N.Y. -- on a 3D monitor for pilots that doesn’t require the use of glasses or a headset. 

Through a series of NASA Small Business Innovation Research contracts, the most recent of which was awarded in early 2014, DTI has been working on developing monitors that can switch between 2D and 3D imaging. The LCD monitor includes a user-facing camera that tracks the eyes of the person looking at the monitor. When the monitor is switched into 3D mode, software computes how to display items on the screen so they appear to be in 3D from the perspective of the viewer. 

OpenStack: open-source tools for cloud computing

In 2010, NASA software engineers joined forces with Rackspace Inc. -- a San Antonio, Texas, company -- to begin developing an open source cloud computing platform.  The product of their collaboration -- OpenStack -- is now used to power CERN, Europe’s research organization; Walmart’s online shopping operations; and Wikimedia Foundation’s online encyclopedia. 

Development has continued, and in late 2014, an integrated suite of software was released -- Canonical Distribution of OpenStack --  that not only coordinates OpenStack’s dozen modules but also provides deployment tools, scaling and integration with third-party technologies.

DigitalClone

Engineers at Sentient Science, a New York-based company, began developing DigitalClone in 2001 with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  The idea was to develop a tool that could predict the lifespan of a machine component.

DigitalClone first creates a digital twin of the machine component and applies algorithms that simulate the impacts of friction, lubrication and wear in order to predict the component’s lifespan and failure rate.

By 2010, after a series of research contracts with NASA, the software was ready for real-world testing.  The first sale of the DigitalClone was in June 2013, when the First Wind energy company licensed the software to monitor their 218 wind turbines.  By late 2014, Sentient was providing diagnostics for more than 5,000 wind turbines in North America.  The technology is also now in use on the Hubble Space Telescope and in several military aircraft, including the new F35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Blackhawk and Apache helicopters.

Stellar record

While NASA isn’t beholden to stockholders, it does have to justify itself to Congress on a regular basis.  It shouldn’t be a very difficult selling job.  The general estimate is that for every dollar NASA spends on research and development, $7 to $14 is returned to the economy.

Posted by Patrick Marshall on Jan 07, 2016 at 9:36 AM


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