This column presents technologies that have applications in commercial areas, possibly creating the products of tomorrow. To learn more about each technology, see the contact information provided for that innovation.

Bacterial Sensors

A team of engineers at Rice University has engineered bacteria to quickly sense and report on the presence of a variety of contaminants. The cells can be programmed to identify chemical invaders and report within minutes by releasing a detectable electrical current. Such “smart” devices could power themselves by scavenging energy in the environment as they monitor conditions in settings like rivers, farms, industry, and wastewater treatment plants and to ensure water security, according to the researchers. The environmental information communicated by these self-replicating bacteria can be customized by replacing a single protein in the eight-component, synthetic electron transport chainthat gives rise to the sensor signal. From monitoring the gut microbiome to sensing contaminants like viruses, these engineered microbes could perform many tasks in the future.

Contact: Jeff Falk
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Assembler Robots

Researchers at MIT have made significant steps toward creating robots that could practically and economically assemble nearly anything, including things much larger than themselves, from vehicles to buildings to larger robots. The new system involves large, usable structures built from an array of tiny identical subunits called voxels (the volumetric equivalent of a 2-D pixel). The robots consist of a string of several voxels joined end-to-end. These can grab another voxel using attachment points on one end, then move inchworm-like to the desired position, where the voxel can be attached to the growing structure and released there. Ultimately, such systems might be used to construct a wide variety of large, high-value structures, for example, airplane wing or a functional racing car.

Contact: Abby Abazorius
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Vehicle Entry Flightpath Control

Future high mass missions to Mars, advancements in hypersonic aerospace vehicle design, and evolving science goals, are stretching the performance capabilities of traditional entry systems. NASA’s Pterodactyl team at Ames Research Center has developed a novel yaw-to-bank control system for non-traditional vehicle configurations, such as a Deployable Entry Vehicle (DEV), that can be folded and stowed. The approach provides vehicle stabilization, steering, and precise targeted landing. This control architecture is agnostic to control actuators and can be used with any aerospace vehicle with a strong dihedral effect and/or different guidance control variables. The technology has several potential applications including aerodynamic bodies that require deployable control surfaces on articulating bodies, guidance and control of DEVs with high-precision landing of small payloads sent from planetary bodies back to Earth, and increasing down-mass capabilities for Mars re-entry vehicles.

Contact: NASA Communications
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