Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.
Daniel Shaddock, CEO of Liquid Instruments (Canberra, Australia), started his career as a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 2002, working on the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency.
LISA’s task was daunting: three spacecraft more than 3 million miles apart were to detect gravitational waves that might affect their positions relative to each other by distances smaller than the width of the atoms that made up their instruments. To do this, they would have to correct for any extraneous “noise,” including more than 30,000 miles of drift among them annually. At the heart of LISA’s instrumentation is a phasemeter that measures the difference in phase of two incoming light signals down to a millionth of a wavelength. A phasemeter is also an instrument used in electronics test and measurement.
After funding for LISA was cut, a number of the project’s engineers were assigned to the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) Follow-On mission, also run out of JPL, which uses a similar technique to map Earth’s gravity field. Shaddock was among them, although he moved back to Australia. There, through a partnership between NASA and the newly formed Australian Space Research Program, he led a team at the Australian National University adapting the LISA phasemeter’s field-programmable gate array (FPGA) processor for the GRACE Follow-On. The Australian space program, however, ended in 2014.
Shaddock’s team had gained extensive expertise in signal processing and chip programming under the GRACE Follow-On, and many of them under LISA as well, but the turning point came when one team member figured out how to remotely make an FPGA reconfigure itself for different purposes. FPGAs are computer chips that are not preprogrammed, but designed to be configured by the customer. With funding from venture capital firms, the team founded Liquid Instruments and set about building a commercial product.
The product, called Moku:Lab, initially consisted of devices that could reconfigure into three instruments: an oscilloscope, a spectrum analyzer, and a waveform generator. Each of these devices would normally require its own circuit board and programming. But because Moku:Lab’s hardware is reconfigurable, as the company develops configurations for more instruments, users can simply download them for free.
Moku:Lab can switch among eight common electronics test and measurement instruments, including a phasemeter, data logger, and a lock-in amplifier, and the company hopes to make it a 20-instrument device by the end of this year.
By combining several expensive instruments in one affordable package, Moku:Lab offers enormous cost savings, but also saves the time it would take to change out instruments and install the software to support them. An iPad-based user interface and Wi-Fi capability are also advantages.
The company has identified four target markets, the first being engineers and physicists in research and development divisions, federally funded labs, and universities. The next intended market is education, where Shaddock hopes to help attract the interest of more students and enrich science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula around the world.
In the industrial market, electronics manufacturers use various devices to test and measure products coming off the line, with workers switching between instruments at each workstation. Shaddock imagines a Moku:Lab at each of hundreds of workstations instead, all carrying out the functions of several instruments and recording test results at the commands of a central computer.
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