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NASA Innovation Up Close and Personal

NASA’s post-Shuttle era has demonstrated that the agency continues to achieve amazing engineering feats – not the least of which is the Mars rover Curiosity, which has met the main goal of its 2-year mission in less than one year. Nowhere was NASA innovation more evident than on my recent visit to Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA with the ten winners of the Speed2Design contest sponsored by Littelfuse, a Chicago-based circuit protection company. The prize: a behind-the-scenes tour of the center, including technical conversations with the engineers conducting breakthrough research on everything from simulation and analysis, to wind tunnel testing, to smartphone-based mini-satellites. Although I’ve had the chance to visit many of the ten NASA field centers, including Ames, this visit was particularly memorable because of the cutting-edge technologies we were able to see up close. The ten winning engineers from across the country had the opportunity to visit multiple NASA labs on the Ames campus, courtesy of an in-depth, immersive tour led by David Morse, Chief of Ames’s Technology Partnerships Division. As we visited the world’s largest wind tunnel, Bill Warmbrodt, chief of aeromechanics, described the 80 x 120-foot test section that is capable of velocities up to 100 knots. The fan drive system is composed of six variable-pitch fans, each 40 feet in diameter arranged in two rows of three. Each fan has 15 laminated wood blades and is powered by a 22,500 horsepower electric motor. The six fans rotate together at 180 rpm, drawing 106 megawatts of electricity at full power while moving more than 60 tons of air per second. Our lab visits went from testing aircraft to – yes -- recycling astronaut urine. Michael Flynn, the engineer who heads the water technology development lab, described the need to completely eliminate the use of machinery in water recycling and purification systems to be used for long-duration space missions. Anything that could break or require maintenance simply won’t cut it. “If a life support system fails on a mission to Mars, you’re dead,” said Flynn. The solution: a membrane that mimics the human intestine, which, by the way, is a very-long-life system that filters water, never clogs, and re-generates. When the day came to a close, I was pleased to hear one of the contest winners remark that they were amazed and impressed with the level of technology – for our use now and in the future on Earth and in space – NASA was developing. And that they were now aware – finally! -- that those technologies did not include Velcro® and Tang®.

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Racing to Market

Earlier this year, Mouser Electronics pulled off a marketing/branding coup. They won the Indy 500, arguably the biggest, most famous automobile race in the world. As an official partner of driver Tony Kanaan’s KV Racing Technology team, Mouser’s name and corporate logo were prominently displayed on the race car’s side pods and front wings. On any given day that delivers a certain amount of prestige and brand recognition. But the Indy 500 is no ordinary motor race. It is the largest single-day sporting event in the world, bar none. It is also the most historic auto race in the world with roots dating back to 1911. Mouser is now a part of that history. It should come as no surprise, I guess, that Mouser would see the value in using racing as a promotional tool. Their president and CEO, Glenn Smith – who just celebrated 40 years with the company – races a Porsche Boxster 986 in club events in Texas. Although just a hobby, his interest in the sport made him very aware of its commercial appeal. “When we visited one of the teams and found out how many engineers they had involved in the program and the amount of technology in every car, it was sort of compelling,” he explained. “We thought we could use it to get some good branding exposure.” When asked what made him choose an IndyCar over other forms of racing, such as NASCAR, Smith was quick to answer. “I think there’s an emotional appeal to Indy,” he said. “For me, I know when I was a kid, that was the Memorial Day weekend tradition – watch the Indy 500. But when you look at the platforms, when you look at what IndyCar does, they have a significantly larger engineering team that focuses on electronics. They do a lot more measurements; there are hundreds of sensors on each car. [They have] telemetry channels and state-of-the-art engine control systems, and with all of the monitoring that goes on, it definitely puts them in a different place for us, as an electronics company, than NASCAR for example.” In 2011, their first year in IndyCar racing, they partnered with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Indy 500 pole winner Alex Tagliani. In 2012 they switched to the KV Racing Technology team owned by venture capitalist Kevin Kalkhoven and former driver Jimmy Vasser with driver Tony Kanaan. “We love Sam Schmidt – great guy and great team – and everything there was first class in terms of their operation,” said Smith, “but then there’s Tony Kanaan. It was kind of hard to pass up a guy with that kind of perseverance, that has made that many attempts at the Indy 500 and still hadn’t achieved it…until now.” Things got off to a good start in 2012. Kanaan – or “TK” as he’s affectionately known to fans – started eighth in the 2012 Indy 500 and found himself in the lead with just six laps to go. But he couldn’t hang on and wound up finishing third behind Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. The rest of the season produced mixed results, but Mouser’s faith in the team never waivered. When the 2013 Indy 500 rolled around, TK and the team did not seem all that impressive. They qualified 12th fastest at 226.949 mph, almost 2 mph slower than pole winner Ed Carpenter. But when the green flag fell on race day, it took Kanaan just nine laps to get to the front and he was able to run there at will. Altogether he led the race 15 times, including that all-important last lap. As it turns out, that was all part of the plan. “We concentrated for the entire month on working on the race car and not worrying about qualifying,” explained Kanaan, “because the goal is to win a 500 mile race, not a 4 lap race, which is qualifying. Honestly, it’s always nice to start at the front; it’s nice to have the pole, which I’ve done before. But we decided as a team that nobody will remember who started on the pole, but they remember who won the race.” Kanaan, who has been involved in IndyCar racing since 1998, is one of the most experienced drivers on the circuit. His best friend, the late two-time Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, developed the current IndyCar model, the Dallara DW12, and according to Kanaan it is one of the best cars he’s ever driven. “The biggest difference in this car from the past cars I’ve driven [is that] the ground effects are very good, so it relies a lot less on the front and rear wings, explained Kanaan. “The floor [of the car] is so efficient that it sucks the car down. It’s a huge advantage. Basically it’s the most efficient way to get the speed out of it because the wings will slow you down, but we can run very little wings. To use an example, we go from 0 to -10.5 [degrees] and from 0 to +5. I raced at -4.5! That’s how efficient the car is. And it’s a safer car than in the past. It’s definitely one of the best cars I’ve ever driven.” It’s not every day that a company sponsors a car that wins the Indy 500, especially with a driver as popular as Tony Kanaan, so to celebrate Mouser hosted a Tony Kanaan Day at their corporate headquarters in Mansfield, Texas. Employees were all given special commemorative tee-shirts. Customers, media and VIPs were invited, as were the citizens of Mansfield whose mayor presented Kanaan with an official proclamation and key to the city. The only fly in the ointment occurred when severe weather on the east coast delayed Kanaan’s flight out of Miami, where he lives. That left several hundred people standing around on Mouser’s front lawn, eating hot dogs, drinking soda, and wondering if a sunburn would be all they got for their efforts. Some questioned why Kanaan wasn’t already in Texas with the rest of his team preparing for that weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. He was more than happy to answer that question when he finally arrived, not quite two hours late. He couldn’t catch an earlier flight, he explained, because he had to be in Miami that morning to take the written test to become a U.S. citizen. All was suddenly forgiven as the crowd burst into applause. How could you not love this guy? As for the future, Glenn Smith points out that Kanaan, whose contract is up this year, is negotiating with the team, “so we’ll have to weigh all our options.” But, he adds, “I can’t think of a better team. Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven are fantastic guys. We’ve enjoyed being around them and I don’t have any reason to change, but we’ll just have to wait and see how the teams all settle out at the end of the season and where all the drivers end up.” One gets the impression he hopes everything stays status quo. But whatever happens, one thing won’t change. Of the thousands of companies around the world promoting themselves and their products by sponsoring race cars, very few can say they’ve won the Indy 500. But Mouser can.

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Cyber-War – Have I Been Attacked?

Today we are pleased to have a guest blog on embedded device security from Alan Grau, president of Icon Labs. In July of 2011, Bloomberg Business Week’s cover story was ”Cyber Weapons: The New Arms Race.” Media reports of cyber-attacks by China on military targets and military contractors are frequent and are increasing. It is clear that a cyber-war has begun. The reported attacks focus on attacks against corporate networks, many aimed at stealing intellectual property and military secrets. One report details how Chinese hackers stole information relating to the operation of the power grid from a large corporation in the US and Canada. Large Enterprise and DoD networks are protected by sophisticated multi-layer security solutions including enterprise firewalls, intrusion detection and intrusion prevention systems and integration with Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems. Together, these systems provide robust threat detection, prevention and reporting capabilities. Systems such as McAfee’s GlobalThreat Intelligence (GTI) system monitor threats worldwide to detect issues such as an endpoint that is communicating with a website that is known to be malicious or that is sending packets to China. However, embedded devices lack this type of security detection and reporting. Many new embedded systems being developed today include built in security capabilities such as secure boot, data encryptions, security protocols and authenticated logins to protect against attacks. These features provide limited ability to detect and report an attack, or to provide remediation if a device is compromised. A cyber-attack against an embedded device could go completely undetected. The type of security implemented for enterprise networks requires tremendous computing resources. Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS) systems run on detected servers, frequently using hardware designed specifically for deep packet inspection. Due to their tremendous resource requirements, implementing these functions on an embedded device is clearly not possible with the hardware that is available today. However, integration with SIEM and GTI systems can provide an ability to detect attacks against an embedded device. Providing an integrated solution provides device protection on the RTOS device itself along with situational awareness and integration with security management systems. . The RTOS device could report to a product such as McAfee’s GTI or SIEM a log of all the IP addresses that the device communicates with or receives packets from. The SIEM or GTI product can then analyze the communication and detect threats or cyber-attacks. If the embedded device receives a flood of packets from China or another known insecure domain, it will be detected, allowing us to at least know that the device was attacked. This information can be used to adjust security policies, firewall filtering rules, or take other actions to remediate the threat. Security solutions for embedded devices need to move beyond simply securing the endpoint. Embedded devices need a solution that provides situational awareness and integration with security management, GTI and SIEM systems. Alan Grau is president of Icon Labs, a company that specializes in security solutions for embedded systems and devices. Contact Alan at alan.grau@iconlabs.com

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Laser Eye Beams

As the editor of Photonics Tech Briefs, I cover laser technology for a living. They’re pretty fascinating devices, but that doesn’t mean I ever wanted to have a laser beam shot into my eye. Unfortunately, Father Time and our own bodies do not always give us a choice. I was recently diagnosed as a prime candidate for narrow angle glaucoma. According to my optometrist, fluid in the eye normally drains through the space, or angle, between the cornea – the clear element covering the front of the eye – and the colored part of the eye, called the iris. In some people, like me, as we get older the lenses in our eyes continue to grow while the anterior chambers get shallower, causing the drainage angle to narrow. This causes pressure in the eye to increase. If it gets too high, it can result in a very serious condition known as acute angle closure glaucoma, which can send you to the emergency room with severe eye pain, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and some other very unpleasant symptoms. If they can’t relieve the pressure immediately, it could result in permanent damage or loss of vision. The way to prevent that is a relatively simple medical procedure called laser iridotomy, which involves using a precisely focused laser to burn a tiny microscopic hole in the iris, causing it to move away from the fluid drainage area, thereby relieving the pressure. Notice I said “relatively simple” because that’s how the eye surgeon described it. As for me, getting shot in the eye with a laser sounded anything but simple. The laser used for this procedure, at least in my case, was a Nidek combo YAG/green laser that combines their YC-1800 ophthalmic Nd:YAG laser and GYC-1000 green laser photocoagulator into one machine. According to my surgeon, having both types of laser combined in one system allows for “on the fly switching.” I was about to ask him why that’s important when I realized his answer my only increase my fear factor, so I just let it go. The procedure, which takes all of about 2 or 3 minutes, is painless, but it does involve some degree of discomfort. After anesthetic drops are placed in the eye and the patient’s head is positioned on the machine, a small device is placed over the eye to hold it open throughout the procedure. The patient is then instructed to focus their other eye on some point – the doctor’s shoulder, for example – told not to blink, and the procedure begins. For the next few minutes the eye being treated endures a series of very bright flashes of light – like a strobe light – and an uncomfortable feeling of pressure being exerted on the eyeball. I counted a total of 62 flashes in all, which is a lot when you’re trying not to blink…or panic. When it was over, vision in that eye was slightly blurry and it felt irritated, like a bad case of dry eye, for several hours. After that everything was fine. Afterwards, I asked my doctor about the flashes. As he explained it, that was the laser being triggered. The hole in the iris is not formed with one long, continuous burst, as one might assume from watching old sci-fi movies. Rather, each burst removes a microscopic amount of material until the hole is created. He seemed somewhat surprised when I told him how many flashes I’d counted. I don’t know about you, but any surgical procedure involving my eyes terrifies me. I mean, if a doctor operating on your leg makes a mistake, you may walk with a limp for the rest of your life, but if your eye surgeon makes a mistake… I understand before the advent of lasers, they used to perform iridotomies by hand. Isn’t technology wonderful?

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Explore & Discover with NASA

NASA is one of the top research entities in the world, producing technologies that range from electronics and new materials, to state-of-the-art robotics and sensors. Readers of NASA Tech Briefs get a firsthand look at these new technologies every month. But how many of you have had the chance to go behind the scenes at NASA and talk face-to-face with the engineers who are inventing these cutting-edge breakthroughs every day, or tour a NASA facility? As Editorial Director of NASA Tech Briefs, I’ve had the chance to tour a number of the NASA centers and meet many NASA engineers. And that experience is always exciting. You won’t find design engineers who are more passionate about what they do, or enjoy where they work, more than the men and women of NASA. Think about it – where else can you, as an engineer, drive a rover on the surface of Mars, or help develop the spacecraft that will take humans there? Last year, the Speed2Design Sweepstakes -- sponsored by Littelfuse, a Chicago-based producer of electronic circuit protection devices -- took lucky winners behind the scenes for an IndyCar weekend race experience. Winners participated in face-to-face TechTalks with IndyCar engineers responsible for building and maintaining racing’s premier performance machines. This year, they are taking engineers behind the scenes for another truly unique experience: Exploration & Discovery. Beginning today, you can visit the Speed2Design Web site and enter to win a trip to one of two NASA facilities: NASA Ames Research Center in California in August, and Johnson Space Center in Houston, home of Mission Control, in October. The contest provides a unique, technology-packed experience specifically for the design engineering community. During the TechTalks, winners will spend time in a peer-to-peer discussion with NASA engineers currently working on technological breakthroughs in small spacecraft, intelligent robotics, bioengineering, and the NASA Space Portal. Ten winners selected at random will travel to NASA Ames, and ten will travel to NASA Johnson. Once there, you’ll attend TechTalks featuring presentations by NASA engineers, go on a tour of the facility, and have lunch and dinner with the group the day of the event. Also included are hotel accommodations, transportation between the hotel and NASA, and a $500 gift card to pay for other travel expenses. The drawing for the event at NASA Ames is July 18, so if you ever wished you could visit NASA and talk with the engineers who are developing tomorrow’s next great technologies today, visit www.speed2design.com and enter.

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Good News and Bad News

The bad news: the U.S. Government is shut down.   The good news: the deadline has been extended to enter the Speed2Design Exploration & Discovery contest for a visit to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.   In August, I was able to attend the Speed2Design event at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, and it was an unbelievable experience (see my blog of September 4). Sponsored by Littelfuse, the events give ten winners a chance to spend two days at a NASA facility, where they go behind the scenes to see what’s being developed at NASA, and meet the engineers who are inventing these state-of-the-art technologies. In these peer-to-peer TechTalk discussions, winners will discuss technological breakthroughs in spacecraft, bioengineering, robotics, and more.   The event at NASA Johnson is scheduled to include experts covering the International Space Station National Laboratory, the Orion program, Project Morpheus, Robonaut, spacesuit design, the Human Health and Performance Center, avionics and electronics for space, non-destructive testing, and technology transfer and collaboration.   I’ve been there, done that, and it doesn’t get any better than seeing NASA from the inside.   Enter today, and if you’re lucky, I’ll see you there!

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On the Floor at SPIE Defense, Security & Sensing

The SPIE Defense Security & Sensing Show in Baltimore, which began on Monday and ends today, provided attendees with an exhibit hall full of new products and technologies. If you weren’t at the show, here’s some of what you missed: LaserMotive (Kent, WA) had the first public flight of an aircraft system powered by laser over fiber. The company demonstrated InvisiTower powering a small quadrocopter. InvisiTower is a new, portable system that can power any multi-rotor helicopter indefinitely using laser power sent via fiber optic cable, enabling aircraft to stay in the air as long as power is available on the ground. The system is small enough to fit in the back of an SUV, and does not require a pilot to fly — just someone to monitor the video coming from it. Virtusphere (Binghamton, NY) demonstrated the Virtusphere, a simulation platform for training military and law enforcement users preparing for dangerous environments. Virtusphere consists of a 10-foot hollow sphere, which is placed on a special platform that allows the sphere to rotate freely in any direction according to the user’s steps. The user walks, runs, jumps, or crawls inside the sphere, viewing the virtual environment through a head-mounted display. The sensors collect and send data to the computer in real time, and the user’s movement is replicated within the virtual environment. The MUXed North Finder/Tracker from EMCORE (Albuquerque, NM) is designed for man-portable target locator and tripod target locator systems. It’s accurate from 1 to 4 milliradians, weighs less than a pound, has electrical power requirements of less than 5W, and is insensitive to base motion. IO Industries (London, Canada) introduced the Flare CoaXPress 12-megapixel camera with frame rates of over 120 fps at the native 4k x 3k resolution. It can be interfaced directly to frame grabbers and recorders. The MicroraptorHD from Airborne Innovations (Lakewood, CO) is a digital video link that combines a dual camera interface, bidirectional digital video, and command and control link. It’s designed for high-definition video transmission from the smallest micro air vehicles.       

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