Tech & Science

NASA Inventions Headed to Your Home


The Altair UAS—a remotely-piloted aerial vehicle developed for NASA--aided firefighting efforts over central and southern California wildfires in late 2006.

With only two shuttle flights left and the future of manned spaceflight in question, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is having a bit of an identity crisis. Private companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are getting ready to enter the space game in a big way, and as we wait for the next generation of rockets, American astronauts will have to rely on hitching a ride on European, Russian and Chinese space missions to continue our work in orbit.

Arguments over whether now is the time for the government to spend billions on sending people into space notwithstanding, the agency’s efforts to do so have generated a host of new technologies that influence our lives every day. Without NASA we wouldn’t have Dustbusters, Ziploc bags, or memory foam mattresses.

NASA’s Spinoff 2010 report, which the agency publishes annually to promote the commercial applications of its investments in technological research, highlights a number of innovations that affect our lives every day. Here are some of the highlights.

If your cell phone has a camera, there’s a one in three chance that it uses technology derived directly from the space program. Ever since the world watched Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon, NASA has continued to push video recording as an essential mission goal.

The drive to miniaturize cameras while enhancing image quality led to the creation of Aptina Imaging Corporation, which took the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s “complementary metal-oxide semiconductor active-pixel” image sensors to the next level, shipping one million of them between 1995 and 2000.

Today, the CMOS-APS technology includes new features like image stabilization and the ability to record in high definition, with the technology poised to replace the traditional charge-coupled device (CCD) sensors in most digital still and video cameras, since they consume considerably less power.

NASA’s Spinoff report projects annual sales of more than one billion units beginning in 2010. The report describes:

“As demand rises for high-end capabilities like HD imaging and the market for camera products booms, Aptina’s NASA-developed technology should play an even greater role in products benefiting the public every day.”

Oftentimes the most sophisticated technology already exists in nature, and just needs some intelligent human beings to replicate it. It turns out NASA is great at such bio-mimicry. In trying to improve on welding masks worn by technicians at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the agency turned to eagles, whose ability to spot prey from incredible distances while being fully exposed to the sun’s rays is unmatched. Eagles don’t get cataracts, so NASA looked to them to help prevent cataracts in humans.

The result was Eagle Eyes Optics, which licensed the innovative lens technology that eliminates 100% of harmful blue and ultraviolet wavelengths of light while allowing the harmless red, yellow and green to filter through unobstructed. The glasses don’t look like traditional sunglasses, but the combination of protection and clarity make them favorites for anyone who spends a lot of time outside.

In 2010, the technology was inducted into the Space Foundation’s Space Technology Hall of Fame.

It’s no surprise that much of NASA’s technological innovations are in the area of aviation—the agency has “aeronautics” in its name, after all. With sustainability and fuel efficiency being a huge priority for companies in all areas of transport, air travel may need it the most.

Boeing, America’s primary aircraft manufacturer, set up Aviation Partners Boeing in 1999 to commercialize winglet technology developed by NASA engineers. These “blended winglets” have been constantly refined to integrate seamlessly with a range of wing designs, giving both private and commercial airplanes a 20% decrease in drag that translates into major savings on fuel.

In 2010, APB, which has been equipping Boeing planes with the improved winglets at a rate of 400 per year, quantified the benefits of the technology. The savings are described in NASA’s spinoff report: “Blended Winglet technology has saved two billion gallons of jet fuel worldwide. This represents a monetary savings of $4 billion and an equivalent reduction of almost 21.5 million tons in carbon dioxide emissions.”

The agency estimates that “a typical Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 airplane saves about 100,000 gallons of fuel each year.” So the next time you fly the discount airline, remember to thank NASA for the low ticket price.

Moving into airline safety, NASA was instrumental in successfully developing a technology that probably many have imagined: a parachute capable of floating an entire plane safely to the ground. In considering the challenges of arresting the fall of an entire airplane in freefall, with a light and efficient system that doesn’t make the aircraft impossible to fly, inventor Boris Popov, who created Ballistic Recovery Systems Inc. to develop the parachute, leaned on NASA funding to develop the correct thin-film parachutes and smart deployment devices that are key to making it work.

The Spinoff report describes the impressive solution to the problem: “The rocket fires at over 100 miles per hour and extracts the parachute in less than one second. Thanks to a patented shock attenuation device, the chute opens according to the speed of the aircraft; at high speeds, the chute opens only 25% for the first few seconds to reduce airspeed to the point where the chute can open fully and still sustain the opening shock. (The lightweight parachute material has to sustain the force of the rocket deployment, as well as the force of the aircraft.)”

Using the parachute, the plummeting aircraft only feels a shock on landing equivalent to falling seven feet. The company reports 259 lives saved by the BRS parachute, as well as the planes themselves. Thanks to NASA’s support of the project, the system is now being scaled up to commercial airliners, where it may save the lives of many more.

Hairspray is one of the last things one might think of as an application of NASA technology, but professional hair care maker Farouk Systems Inc. found a way to make it happen. NASA research in putting ceramic coatings that allow the precise activation of drug-delivering microcapsules for cancer patients inspired the company’s founder, Farouk Shami, to apply the technology to his straightening irons.

The resulting products, which feature ceramic coatings that emit negative ions when heated, turn out to have a number of benefits for frizzy hair. On top of that, the company has taken another NASA innovation—nanosilver—that creates sterile surfaces using microscopic beads of silver on its products.

Next up is the integration of a third NASA technology using near-infrared light into Farouk’s hair products, which hit the market in 2010.

With the extensive damage wreaked by last year’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, new attention began to be paid to cleanup techniques, most of which had been proven to be somewhat lacking in dealing with the scale of the disaster.

One of the more successful products deployed was a line of bacteria created by Micro-Bac International Inc., a company under contract with NASA. Developed as a way to purify water in closed systems, such as that on the International Space Station, the company developed a strain of bacteria that needs only a little bit of light to function. The bacteria work by breaking down certain components in oil.

Having treated oil spills in Ecuador, the bacteria—which can also be targeted at other environmental contaminants—were deployed to help break down oil from the 2010 spill as it washed up on shore. The next development involves a dried form of the bacteria that can be kept on hand and sprinkled on oil patches that arise from any source to protect the land from contamination.

Taking the prize as the most-licensed NASA technology to date is another innovation that helps address contamination resulting from industrial pollutants in industries across the country. NASA developed the technology, notably, to deal with the pollution around its launchpads at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which had become significantly toxic from fuel and other byproducts of multiple rocket launches.

The solution it developed, called Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron (EZVI), neutralizes toxic chemicals when it is directly injected deep into the contaminated soil. The only byproduct of the process is non-toxic hydrocarbon, which leaves no trace after diffusing into the groundwater.

EZVI’s effectiveness is limited to a specific category of contaminants known as DNAPLs, but that still makes the technology applicable to thousands of sites in the country. The Spinoff Report notes that 60% - 70% of Superfund sites—the most toxic sites in the country, which have been targeted as the highest priorities for remediation—contain DNAPLs, meaning we’re going to need a lot more EZVI.

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