One partnership in the IPP Seed Fund – we currently have 29 Seed Fund projects – is a joint project with Caterpillar to develop autonomously operated earth-moving equipment. NASA's interest in that is autonomous operation on the Lunar surface for preparing sites for habitation and landing. Caterpillar's interest is in safer operation of their vehicles. Worldwide, they lose about one operator per month through accidents. From their perspective, they're looking at building safety in – putting sensors in and having control algorithms that would detect a hazardous situation and stop things before an accident happens. The Department of Defense (DoD) is also interested for dropping a big Caterpillar into a hostile region and having a clear landing area where there is no soldier on board to worry about getting shot. It's an interesting partnership that has a number of applications and the folks at Johnson Space Center working on that are tied in with those at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who are doing the autonomous control of the Mars rovers.
NTB: Is there a network within NASA through which you match up the technologies that are needed with those you have found outside the agency?
Comstock: Each mission directorate does their own technology planning and needs assessment, and we have a Chief Technologist who works with all the mission directorates and helps communicate across IPP what those needs are and also provides the role of integrating across the agency to look for commonalities or areas for mission directorates to work together where they already may not be doing so. We have regular interaction with the mission directorate representatives and one of the main areas where we get insight into what their needs are is through the process of preparing the SBIR solicitation every year.
NTB: How can readers of NASA Tech Briefs and other engineers go about working with the IPP to commercialize technologies they have, or license NASA technologies?
Comstock: In terms of licensing, once they identify a technology they're interested in, they would contact the IPP chief at the relevant NASA center, and work at the center level. (Editor's note: See page 70 of this issue for a complete list of NASA IPP center offices.) We have a Headquarters office for IPP, but most of the real work is done at the centers. We have an office at each of the 10 field centers. In terms of providing technologies, one of the ways to get funding for that is through the SBIR/STTR program. If they have a technology that would be of use for some particular application at NASA, they could contact us at Headquarters or whatever the appropriate center would be. Part of our role is to be a facilitator, connecting technology capabilities from outside the agency to what the needs are in terms of the agency. We are in the process of revamping our Web site and expect that when that's done, it will be a valuable resource to help make those connections