Ames Research Center (Moffett Field, CA) and Langley Research Center (Hampton, VA) have won the 2008 NASA Government and Commercial Invention of the Year Awards, respectively. The Ames invention is a high-speed 3D laser scanner with real-time processing. Langley’s method for making high-performance resins for infusion and transfer molding processes is used in a high-temperature resin called PETI-330.

Laser Scanner

The Ames scanner is used in a Mold Impression Laser Tool used to scan space shuttle tiles for damage. (NASA Ames Research Center)

The Ames 3D surface scanning and profiling technology was developed for critical, real-time inspection of damage to the thermal protection tiles of the space shuttle, but can be used for a wide range of commercial applications from product quality control to autonomous navigation. The scanner provides realtime analysis of surfaces ranging from the small (such as circuit boards) to the large (such as panels or roads).

Known as ShuttleSCAN, the system is small (7.25 × 5.5 × 5.4") and lightweight (2.9 lbs.), and is power efficient (over 1,000 scans from the rechargeable lithium battery). It offers 802.11G wireless or Gigabit Ethernet wired connectivity, and is based on the principle of laser triangulation.

The scanner contains an imaging sensor; two lasers mounted on opposite sides of the imaging sensor; and a customized, on-board processor for processing the data from the imaging sensor. The lasers are oriented at a given angle and surface height based on the size of objects being examined. For inspecting small details, such as defects in space shuttle tiles, a scanner is positioned close to the surface. This creates a small field of view, but with very high resolution.

For scanning larger objects, such as in a robotic vision application, a scanner can be positioned several feet above the surface. This increases the field of view, but results in slightly lower resolution. The laser projects a line on the surface, directly below the imaging sensor. For a perfectly flat surface, this projected line will be straight. As the ShuttleSCAN head moves over the surface, defects or irregularities above and below the surface will cause the line to deviate from perfectly straight. The processor’s proprietary algorithms interpret these deviations in real time and build a representation of the defect that is then transmitted to an attached PC for triangulation and 3D display or printing.

The system scans at speeds greater than 600,000 points per second, with a resolution smaller than .001". Results of the scan are available in real time, whereas conventional systems scan over the surface, analyze the scanned data, and display the results long after the scan is complete.

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High-Temperature Resin

Langley’s PETI-330 in resin powder form.

Langley’s method for making high-performance resins for infusion and transfer molding processes resulted in a high-temperature resin, known as PETI- 330, which is specifically designed for use in fabricating composite materials through low-cost processes.

PETI-330 is the only commercially available off-the-shelf resin that has high-temperature structural mechanical properties, as well as the right low and stable melt viscosity properties suitable for resin transfer molding. Its excellent melt stability allows PETI-330 to penetrate large-area carbon fiber preforms without changing flow characteristics. The resulting finished resin products have high heat resistance, making them ideal candidates for large structures that are exposed to hot environments.

The manufacturing method improves traditional single-vacuum-bag (SVB) processes. The new double-vacuum-bag (DVB) process overcomes SVB deficiencies by improving volatile management and eliminating excessive resin bleed situations. The DVB process eliminates the compaction force generated by vacuum suction while maintaining the vacuum effectiveness for the volatile depletion. The technique has been proven and validated to be effective for volatile management and resin content control in composites with reactive resin matrices such as solvent-containing phenolic and polyimide resin matrix prepregs.

Currently, Langley researchers are using PETI-330 in the development of advanced composite fabrication technology for NASA’s Aeronautics Supersonics Program. Ube America, a division of Ube Industries, licensed the invention from Langley. Recently, the company began collaborating with Boeing Aerospace on the development of new materials technology for aerospace applications.

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Nominations for both NASA Inventions of the Year are submitted by each NASA field center and evaluated by a panel of the Inventions and Contributions Board. The board determines which nominations qualify for each category, ranks the nominees, and makes recommendations to the NASA Office of the General Counsel for review and approval.