Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
Developed by Jonathan Lee, a structural materials engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center, and PoShou Chen, a scientist with Huntsville, Alabama-based Morgan Research Corporation, MSFC-398 is a high-strength aluminum alloy able to operate at high temperatures. The invention was conceived through a program with the Federal government and a major automobile manufacturer called the Partnership for Next Generation Vehicles. While the success of MSFC-398 can partly be attributed to its strength and resistance to wear, another key aspect is the manufacturing process: the metal is capable of being produced in high volumes at low cost, making it attractive to commercial markets.
Since its premiere, the high-strength aluminum alloy has received several accolades, including being named Marshall’s “Invention of the Year” in 2003, receiving the Society of Automotive Engineering’s “Environmental Excellence in Transportation Award” in 2004, the Southeast Regional Federal Laboratory Consortium “Excellence in Technology Transfer Award” in 2005, and the National Federal Laboratory Consortium’s “Excellence in Technology Transfer Award” in 2006.
Realizing the potential commercial applicability of MSFC-398, Marshall introduced it for public licensing in 2001. The alloy’s subsequent success is particularly apparent in its widespread application in commercial marine products.
A worldwide leader in the design, development, and distribution of a wide variety of land and water vehicles, including outboard motors, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) Inc., came across a description of the NASA alloy and was immediately intrigued. The Canada-based company decided to meet with NASA in April 2001, to explore how the technology could strengthen its products. BRP and NASA identified an application for high-performance outboard engine pistons. Prototype production started in July, and the Boats and Outboard Engines Division of BRP, based in Sturtevant, Wisconsin, signed the licensing agreement exactly 1 year later.
“Having a proper mixture of the alloy’s composition with the correct heat treatment process are two crucial steps to create this alloy for high-temperature applications,” said Lee. “The team at Bombardier worked hard with the casting vendor and NASA inventors to perfect the casting of pistons, learn and repeat the process, and bring its product to market. Chen and I are honored to see something we invented being used in a commercial product in a very rapid pace. We still have to pinch ourselves occasionally to realize that BRP’s commercialization effort for this alloy has become a reality. It’s happened so quickly.”
The usual cycle for developing this type of technology, from the research stage to the development phase, and finally into a commercial product phase may take several years and more than a $1 million investment,” Lee said. In this case, it occurred in fewer than 4 years and at a fraction of that cost.
BRP also applauded NASA for its prompt assistance. “The demands of the outboard engine are more significant than any other engine NASA had ever encountered,” claims Denis Morin, the company’s vice president of engineering, outboard engines. “The team from NASA was on the fast track, learned all the intricacies, and delivered an outstanding product.” BRP incorporated the alloy pistons into a brand new mid-power outboard motor that the company affirms is “years beyond carbureted two-stroke, four-stroke, or even direct injection” engines.
While a four-stroke engine generally runs cleaner and quieter than its two-stroke counterpart, it lacks the power and dependability; and the two-stroke engine, which generally contains 200 fewer parts than a comparable four-stroke motor, literally has fewer things that can go wrong. Evinrude E-TEC is a line of two-stroke motors that maintain the power and dependability of a two-stroke with the refinement of a four-stroke. The Evinrude E-TEC is also the first outboard motor that will not require oil changes, winterization, spring tune-ups, or scheduled maintenance for 3 years of normal recreational use. It incorporates the NASA alloy into its pistons, significantly improving durability at high temperatures while also making the engine quieter, cleaner, and more efficient.
The E-TEC features a low-friction design completely free from belts, powerhead gears, cams, and mechanical oil pumps; a “sure-start” ignition system that prevents spark plug fouling and does not require priming or choking; and speed-adjusting failsafe electronics that keep it running even if a boat’s battery dies. A central computer controls the outboard engine’s single injector, which is completely sealed to prevent air from entering the fuel system and thus minimizes evaporative emissions. Furthermore, the E-TEC auto-lubing oil system eliminates the process of having to mix oil with fuel, while complete combustion precludes virtually any oil from escaping into the environment. When programmed to operate on specially designed oil, the E-TEC uses approximately 50 percent less oil than a traditional direct injection system and 75 percent less than a traditional two-stroke engine. Additionally, when compared to a four-stroke engine, the E-TEC creates 80 percent less carbon monoxide while idle.
As an added bonus for fishermen, the new piston design also reduces the slapping sound usually made when pistons slide up and down in the engine’s cylinder, a sure sign to fish that someone is coming for them with a worm on a hook.
Ranging from 40-horsepower (hp) models to 300-hp models, Evinrude E-TEC engines won the prestigious “2003 Innovation Award” from the National Marine Manufacturers Association at the annual Miami International Boat Show, and are the only marine engines to have ever received the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Air Technology Excellence Award.”
E-TEC also received a testimonial from an individual who put the engine to an incredible test in the most unusual of conditions: While BRP often hears from boaters who depend on its engines in tropical, warm, and temperate climates, the company had heard about an individual from the small Alaskan village of Koyukuk who runs the Yukon River with his Evinrude just about everyday, from break-up of the iced-over body of water to freeze-up during the long Alaskan winter. The nearest “sizable” town is 400 miles upstream from Koyukuk, so the turbid and turgid river serves as the only “highway” on which to acquire goods, tools, and groceries. That’s a pretty good vote of confidence.
Evinrude® is a registered trademark, and E-TEC™ is a trademark of Bombardier Recreational Products Inc.
Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
Timeless, beautiful, and haunting images: A delicate blue marble floating in the black sea of space; a brilliant white astronaut suit, visor glowing gold, the entire Earth as a backdrop; the Moon looming large and ghostly, pockmarked with sharp craters, a diaphanous grey on deep black. Photographs from space illustrating the planet on which we live, the space surrounding it, and the precarious voyages into it by our fellow humans are among the most tangible products of the Space Program. These images have become touchstones of successive generations, as the voyages into space have illuminated the space in which we live.
In 1962, Walter Schirra blasted off in a Mercury rocket to become the fifth American in space, bringing with him the first Hasselblad camera to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, recently purchased from a camera shop near Johnson Space Center in Houston—but not the last. The camera, a Hasselblad 500C, was a standard consumer unit that Schirra had stripped to bare metal and painted black in order to minimize reflections. Once in space, he documented the wonder and awe-inspiring beauty around him, and brought the images back for us to share. The Hasselblad 500C cameras were used on this and the last Project Mercury mission in 1963. They continued to be used throughout the Gemini space flights in 1965 and 1966.
Since then, a number of different camera models have been put to use, but the images taken with the boxy, black Hasselblads have remained true classics. Noted for the amazing sharpness of the photos, the Hasselblads stood up to the rigors of operating in space, facing from -65 °C to over 120 °C in the sun. Many shots have become historic treasures: the first spacewalk during the Gemini IV mission in 1965; the first venture to another celestial body during Apollo VIII, including the iconic “Earthrise” photograph; and the first landing on the surface of the Moon during Apollo XI. These pictures were published around the world, and have become some of the most recognizable and powerful photographs known.
Several different models of Hasselblad cameras have been taken into space, often modified in one way or another to ease use in cramped conditions and while wearing space suits, such as replacing the reflex mirror with an eye-level finder.
Victor Hasselblad AB, of Gothenburg, Sweden, has enjoyed a very long-lived collaboration with NASA. Working primarily with Johnson, the last four decades have seen a frequent exchange of ideas between Hasselblad and NASA via faxes, telephone calls, and meetings both in Sweden and the United States. Initially, most meetings were held at Hasselblad headquarters in Gothenburg, to be as close to the core activities as possible. Since then, collaboration with NASA has allowed what was once a very small company in international terms to achieve worldwide recognition. Hassleblad’s operations now include centers in Parsippany, New Jersey; and Redmond, Washington; as well as France and Denmark.
One direct development of this partnership, the 553ELS, is the space version of the 553ELX model, available commercially for years. This camera has adopted several key features and improvements, such as: the fixation of the mirror mechanism was removed from the rear plate to the side walls; aluminum plating replaced the standard black leatherette as the outer covering; the standard 5-pole contact was replaced by a special 7-pole contact equipped with a bayonet locking device; and the battery cover was equipped with a hinge. These changes resulted in increased durability and reliability, and the ELS model has seen frequent use in the shuttle program.
Hasselblad incorporated and refined other modifications by NASA technicians into new models, such as a 70mm magazine developed to meet Space Program needs. Camera modifications included new materials and lubricants to cope with the vacuum conditions outside the spacecraft, and often improved reliability and durability of the cameras. In addition, technicians modified camera electronics to meet NASA’s special demands for handling and function, reconstructing lenses and adding large tabs to the focusing and aperture rings to ease handling with the large gloves of an astronaut suit in zero gravity.
For over four decades, Hasselblad has supplied camera equipment to the NASA Space Program, and Hasselblad cameras still take on average between 1,500 and 2,000 photographs on each space shuttle mission. Just as the remarkable pictures on the surface of the Moon defined an era, the fine pictures of astronauts at work in and around the shuttles and International Space Station (ISS) have helped define the latest era of man’s continued exploration of the universe around us.
Likewise, the commercial line of Hasselblad cameras continues to incorporate lessons learned from these voyages. Consumer models have enjoyed such refinements as the revised fixation of the mirror mechanism—the Hasselblad 503CW still features the space-influenced improved mirror mechanism—a design change that gave far better stability for the mirror assembly, and an enlarged exposure button, similar to the one designed for the space models.
In October 2001, the Space Shuttle Discovery, in addition to transporting modules to the ISS, carried a new Hasselblad space camera: a focal-plane shutter camera based on the standard commercial version (203FE) equipped with data imprinting along the edge of the film frame, enabling the recording of time and picture number for each exposure. Since the computers onboard have full control over the position of the shuttle, identification of the exact location captured in a frame has become much easier.
Now that NASA is returning to the Moon and is also looking on to Mars for the next stage of exploration, it is without doubt that Hasselblad cameras will be along to document the voyages for those of us remaining on Earth. The relationship that began in a camera shop in Houston, blossomed on the Moon, and matured on the space shuttle, now prepares to reach new heights. As one more small step for a man and giant leap for mankind approaches, we anxiously await the photographs.
Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
NASA uses 3-D immersive photography and video for guiding space robots, in the space shuttle and International Space Station programs, cryogenic wind tunnels, and for remote docking of spacecraft. It allows researchers to view situations with the same spatial awareness they would have if they were present. With this type of photography, viewers virtually enter the panoramic image and can interact with the environment by panning, looking in different directions, and zooming in on anything in the 360-degree field of view that is of interest. As the perspective changes, the viewer feels as if he or she is actually looking around the scene, which enhances situational awareness and provides a high level of functionality for viewing, capturing, and analyzing visual data.
A Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract through Langley Research Center helped Interactive Pictures Corporation (IPC), of Knoxville, Tennessee, create an innovative imaging technology. This technology is a video imaging process that allows real-time control of live video data and can provide users with interactive, panoramic 360° views.
In 1993, the year that the first IPIX camera entered the market, it also received an “R&D 100” award, a prestigious honor given by R&D magazine for significant contributions to the scientific community.
The camera system can see in multiple directions, provide up to four simultaneous views, each with its own tilt, rotation, and magnification, yet it has no moving parts, is noiseless, and can respond faster than the human eye. In addition, it eliminates the distortion caused by a fisheye lens, and provides a clear, flat view of each perspective.
In 1995, an inventor named Ford Oxaal showed the company a technology he had developed which gives users the ability to combine two or more images, whether fisheye or rectilinear, into a single, navigable spherical image. Oxaal convinced IPIX to commercialize this useful showcasing technology, and combined with the advent of the World Wide Web, IPIX was able to execute a successful initial public offering.
The company has changed names at several points along the way. It started out as Telerobotics International, but changed its name to Omniview in 1995 after Oxaal showed his spherical media technology. In 1998, it became Interactive Pictures Corporation, and then later, Internet Pictures Corporation, and finally, IPIX Corporation.
In 2007, Minds-Eye-View Inc., founded by Oxaal in 1989 and based in Cohoes, New York, purchased most of the operating assets of IPIX and is now in the process of taking the company and the technology to the entertainment industry. Oxaal is currently president and CEO.
Applications now include what Oxaal calls “homeland reconnaissance,” wherein critical infrastructure and public facilities are documented with spherical media; military reconnaissance; real estate and product showcasing; security and surveillance; and soon, interactive Webcasts.
Through the NASA SBIR work, IPIX has created two 3-D immersive photography suites: a still image program and a video complement.
The IPIX package is a convenient and powerful documentation and site management tool. It is compatible with many off-the-shelf digital cameras and the final pictures are viewable in any immersive viewing formats, giving users a handful of benefits, including ease of use and the ability to capture and save an entire spherical environment with just two shots. The two images are fused together with no discernable seam, and the viewer can navigate throughout the picture from a fixed location. This is particularly helpful for virtual tours and has been widely embraced by the real estate, hotel, and automobile industries.
IPIX’s immersive video suite also offers many benefits. Users can count on immersive video to capture and save digital representations of entire environments, while providing multiple simultaneous views with a single camera and no moving parts. From within the immersive video view, users can electronically pan, tilt, and zoom, while the camera remains motionless. The system also provides wide, complete coverage, with no blind spots, and the files can be transmitted efficiently over networks, even over existing, commercial IP-based platforms.
Both of these camera systems can be employed in virtually any situation where immersive views are needed. They have been used in casinos, airports, rail systems, parking garages, schools, banks, stores, gas stations, automobile dealerships, amusement parks, hotels, homes for sale or rent, cruise ships, warehouses, power plants, incarceration facilities, theaters, stadiums, shopping centers, military facilities, government centers, assisted living centers, hospitals, gated communities, multi-tenant complexes, manufacturing plants, museums, hospitals, office buildings, colleges and universities, courts, and convention centers, to name just a few. Potential applications, however, are limitless.
In 2004, IPIX security cameras were chosen for surveillance of the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston and the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. That same year, the technology was used for surveillance at the 30th G8 Summit at Sea Island, Georgia, and during the President’s second inaugural parade in Washington, DC. More recently, the technology has been used to secure everything from the CircusCircus Las Vegas Hotel and Casino to Meade High School at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, to the Mt. Pleasant, Illinois, City Hall.
The technology isn’t only applicable to safety and surveillance uses, though. It is a popular complement to real estate and hotel Web sites, where visitors can take virtual tours of properties online.
Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
A space shuttle and a competitive swimmer have a lot more in common than people might realize: Among other forces, both have to contend with the slowing influence of drag. NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate focuses primarily on improving flight efficiency and generally on fluid dynamics, especially the forces of pressure and viscous drag, which are the same for bodies moving through air as for bodies moving through water. Viscous drag is the force of friction that slows down a moving object through a substance, like air or water.
NASA uses wind tunnels for fluid dynamics research, studying the forces of friction in gasses and liquids. Pressure forces, according to Langley Research Center’s Stephen Wilkinson, “dictate the optimal shape and performance of an airplane or other aero/hydro-dynamic body.” In both high-speed flight and swimming, says Wilkinson, a thin boundary layer of reduced velocity fluid surrounds the moving body; this layer is about 2 centimeters thick for a swimmer.
In spite of some initial skepticism, Los Angeles-based SpeedoUSA asked NASA to help design a swimsuit with reduced drag, shortly after the 2004 Olympics. According to Stuart Isaac, senior vice president of Team Sales and Sports Marketing, “People would look at us and say ‘this isn’t rocket science’ and we began to think, ‘well, actually, maybe it is.’” While most people would not associate space travel with swimwear, rocket science is exactly what SpeedoUSA decided to try. The manufacturer sought a partnership with NASA because of the Agency’s expertise in the field of fluid dynamics and in the area of combating drag.
A 2004 computational fluid dynamics study conducted by Speedo’s Aqualab research and development unit determined that the viscous drag on a swimmer is about 25 percent of the total retarding force. In competitive swimming, where every hundredth of a second counts, the best possible reduction in drag is crucially important. Researchers began flat plate testing of fabrics, using a small wind tunnel developed for earlier research on low-speed viscous drag reduction, and Wilkinson collaborated over the next few years with Speedo’s Aqualab to design what Speedo now considers the most efficient swimsuit yet: the LZR Racer. Surface drag testing was performed with the help of Langley, and additional water flume testing and computational fluid dynamics were performed with guidance from the University of Otago (New Zealand) and ANSYS Inc., a computer-aided engineering firm.
“Speedo had the materials in mind [for the LZR Racer],” explains Isaac, “but we did not know how they would perform in surface friction drag testing, which is where we enlisted the help of NASA.” The manufacturer says the fabric, which Speedo calls LZR Pulse, is not only efficient at reducing drag, but it also repels water and is extremely lightweight. Speedo tested about 100 materials and material coatings before settling on LZR Pulse.
NASA and Speedo performed tests on traditionally sewn seams, ultrasonically welded seams, and the fabric alone, which gave Speedo a baseline for reducing drag caused by seams and helped them identify problem areas. NASA wind tunnel results helped Speedo “create a bonding system that eliminates seams and reduces drag,” according to Isaac. The Speedo LZR Racer is the first fully bonded, full-body swimsuit with ultrasonically welded seams. Instead of sewing overlapping pieces of fabric together, Speedo actually fused the edges ultrasonically, reducing drag by 6 percent. “The ultrasonically welded seams have just slightly more drag than the fabric alone,” Isaac explains. NASA results also showed that a low-profile zipper ultrasonically bonded (not sewn) into the fabric and hidden inside the suit generated 8 percent less drag in wind tunnel tests than a standard zipper. Low-profile seams and zippers were a crucial component in the LZR Racer because the suit consists of multiple connecting fabric pieces—instead of just a few sewn pieces such as found in traditional suits—that provide extra compression for maximum efficiency.
The LZR Racer reduces skin friction drag 24 percent more than the Fastskin, the previous Speedo racing suit fabric; and according to the manufacturer, the LZR Racer uses a Hydro Form Compression System to grip the body like a corset. Speedo experts say this compression helps the swimmers maintain the best form possible and enables them to swim longer and faster since they are using less energy to maintain form. The compression alone improves efficiency up to 5 percent, according to the manufacturer.
Olympic swimmer Katie Hoff, one of the American athletes wearing the suit in 2008 competitions, said that the tight suit helps a swimmer move more quickly through the water, because it “compresses [the] whole body so that [it’s] really streamlined.” Athletes from the French, Australian, and British Olympic teams all participated in testing the new Speedo racing suits.
Similar in style to a wetsuit, the LZR Racer can cover all or part of the legs, depending on personal preference and event. A swimmer can choose a full-body suit that covers the entire torso and extends to the ankles, or can opt for a suit with shorter legs above the knees. The more skin the LZR Racer covers, the more potential it has to reduce skin friction drag. The research seems to have paid off; in March 2008, athletes wearing the LZR Racer broke 13 world records.
Speedo®, LZR Pulse®, LZR Racer®, and FastSkin® are registered trademarks of Speedo Holdings B.V.
Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
Aeroponics, the process of growing plants suspended in air without soil or media, provides clean, efficient, and rapid food production. Crops can be planted and harvested year-round without interruption, and without contamination from soil, pesticides, and residue. Aeroponic systems also reduce water usage by 98 percent, fertilizer usage by 60 percent, and eliminate pesticide usage altogether. Plants grown in aeroponic systems have been shown to absorb more minerals and vitamins, making the plants healthier and potentially more nutritious.
The suspended system also has other advantages. Since the growing environment can be kept clean and sterile, the chances of spreading plant diseases and infections commonly found in soil and other growing media are greatly reduced. Also, seedlings do not stretch or wilt while their roots are forming, and once the roots are developed, the plants can be easily moved into any type of growing media without the risk of transplant shock. Lastly, plants tend to grow faster in a regulated aeroponic environment, and the subsequent ease of transplant to a natural medium means a higher annual crop yield. For example, tomatoes are traditionally started in pots and transplanted to the ground at least 28 days later; growers using an aeroponic system can transplant them just 10 days after starting the plants in the growing chamber. This accelerated cycle produces six tomato crops per year, rather than the traditional one to two crop cycles.
These benefits, along with the great reduction in weight by eliminating soil and much of the water required for plant growth, illustrate why this technique has found such enthusiastic support from NASA. Successful long-term missions into deep space will require crews to grow some of their own food during flight. Aeroponic crops are also a potential source of fresh oxygen and clean drinking water, and every ounce of food produced and water conserved aboard a spacecraft reduces payload weight, decreasing launch costs and freeing room for other cargo.
In 1997, NASA teamed with AgriHouse Inc., of Berthoud, Colorado, to develop an aeroponic experiment for use on the Mir space station. Richard Stoner II, founder and president of AgriHouse, had worked with aeroponics since the late 1980s, and developed and patented a method for aeroponic crop production. AgriHouse utilized the research direction of BioServe Space Technologies, a nonprofit, NASA-sponsored Research Partnership Center located at the University of Colorado in Boulder, to assist its efforts in developing its aeroponic technology for space flight (Spinoff 2006). BioServe has extensive experience in space flight, having flown payload experiments on 27 shuttle missions, 2 Mir missions (one being the above-mentioned), and several missions on the International Space Station (ISS).
To continue NASA’s development of aeroponic technologies and offer a unique educational experience to students around the world, an experiment designed and built by BioServe recently flew to the ISS aboard the NASA Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-118, in August 2007. This experiment, designed by Heike Winter-Sederroff, assistant professor of Plant Gravitational Genomics at North Carolina State University, will advance the science of growing food during long-term space expeditions and further the development of heartier varieties of tomato plants for farmers and gardeners on Earth. The experiment is also part of an educational effort involving as many as 15,000 K-12 tudents and teachers around the world, who will compare the growth and development of tomato plants in space with similar experiments being conducted in their own classrooms.
Essential to the success of this research was ensuring the seeds were protected on the way to the ISS, and at the same time, unable to germinate before the start of the experiment. BioServe identified an ideal medium for this transport while meeting with representatives from AeroGrow International Inc., also of Boulder, Colorado. AeroGrow’s proprietary Seed Pod technology, developed for use in its AeroGarden kitchen gardening appliance, was admirably suited to the task in that it encased the seeds in a plastic framework, and thereby protected them during transit and ensured germination would not take place until proscribed by the experiment.
“AeroGrow is proud that the technologies that make our garden so simple and easy to use are being tested for growing fresh food in space as well,” said Michael Bissonnette, founder and chairman of AeroGrow. “We’re thrilled to contribute to the education of so many students, and are looking forward to introducing the AeroGarden in classrooms and educational environments around the world.”
The use of AeroGrow Seed Pods on the ISS can be seen as the fitting fruition of an idea that sprouted several years ago. Bissonnette and colleague John Thompson were inspired by NASA experiments using aeroponic gardening to grow lettuce. The experiments reinforced that plants grown aeroponically did so significantly faster than those grown by any other method. Bissonnette and his team started working to capture this technology in a clean, simple, quick, and dependable appliance that would work in homes.
More than up to the task, AeroGrow’s scientific board boasts a deep background in horticulture and aeroponics, and a depth of understanding that has helped the AeroGarden achieve such great success. For instance, Dr. Henry A. Robitaille holds undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate degrees in horticulture from the University of Maryland and Michigan State University. Notably, he helped design and implement hydroponic growing systems in The Land Pavilion at Epcot Center in the Walt Disney World Resort, collaborating extensively with the NASA Controlled Ecological Life Support System research team at Kennedy Space Center.
Adapting a process as complicated as aeroponics to an automatic home appliance proved a considerable challenge and yielded impressive results. The more than 15 resulting patent applications include specialized lighting systems, nutrient tablets that nourish the plants and ensure standard pH levels regardless of municipal water supply, and the Plug & Grow Seed Pods that recently found their way to the ISS. The appeal of the AeroGarden has been proven in recent years, as the company has shipped over 350,000 gardens.
To this success, Bissonnette reflected, “We have succeeded in every retail channel of distribution we’ve rolled into, including independent culinary stores, national department store chains, independent lawn and garden and hardware chains, and have just concluded successful tests with multiple big-box retailers.” Though still largely rooted in Internet and infomercial sales, AeroGardens are now found in more than 4,300 storefronts. AeroGrow has set its sights on international markets while continuing to refine and enlarge its product line. Now applied in homes and schools nationwide, and with its Seed Pods seeing application on the ISS, the fruits of NASA’s work in past decades are made available in the simplicity of a kitchen countertop gardening appliance.
AeroGarden™, Seed Pod™, and Plug & Grow™ are trademarks of AeroGrow International Inc.
Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
If you wish to explore a Martian landscape without leaving your armchair, a few simple clicks around the NASA Web site will lead you to panoramic photographs taken from the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Many of the technologies that enable this spectacular Mars photography have also inspired advancements in photography here on Earth, including the panoramic camera (Pancam) and its housing assembly, designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Cornell University for the Mars missions. Mounted atop each rover, the Pancam mast assembly (PMA) can tilt a full 180 degrees and swivel 360 degrees, allowing for a complete, highly detailed view of the Martian landscape.
The rover Pancams take small, 1 megapixel (1 million pixel) digital photographs, which are stitched together into large panoramas that sometimes measure 4 by 24 megapixels. The Pancam software performs some image correction and stitching after the photographs are transmitted back to Earth. Different lens filters and a spectrometer also assist scientists in their analyses of infrared radiation from the objects in the photographs. These photographs from Mars spurred developers to begin thinking in terms of larger and higher quality images: super-sized digital pictures, or gigapixels, which are images composed of 1 billion or more pixels.
Gigapixel images are more than 200 times the size captured by today’s standard 4 megapixel digital camera. Although originally created for the Mars missions, the detail provided by these large photographs allows for many purposes, not all of which are limited to extraterrestrial photography.
The technology behind the Mars rover PMAs inspired Randy Sargent at Ames Research Center and Illah Nourbakhsh at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to look at ways consumers might be able to use similar technology for more “down-to-Earth” photography and virtual exploration.
In 2005, Sargent and Nourbakhsh created the Global Connection Project, a collaboration of scientists from CMU, Google Inc., and the National Geographic Society, whose vision is to encourage better understanding of the Earth’s cultures through images. This vision inspired the development of their Gigapan products.
After seeing what the Pancams and PMAs could do, Sargent created a prototype for a consumer-version of a robotic camera platform. He worked with Rich LeGrand of Charmed Labs LLC, in Austin, Texas, to design and manufacture the Gigapan robotic platform for standard digital cameras.
The Gigapan robotic platform is, in essence, an intelligent tripod that enables an amateur photographer to set up detailed shots with ease. A user sets the upper-left and lower-right corners of the panorama, and the Gigapan simply will capture as many images as the user or scene requires. With this level of automation, a 500-picture panorama is no more complicated than a 4-picture panorama; only the camera’s memory limits the size of the panorama.
The Global Connection Project also created two other Gigapan products: a Gigapan Web site and panorama stitching software born from the Ames Vision Workbench, an image processing and computer vision library developed by the Autonomous Systems and Robotics Area in the Intelligent Systems Division.
The robotic platform works with the stitching software by precisely manipulating and aligning each shot ahead of time. The Gigapan software complements the robotic platform by arranging the parts of the panorama (potentially hundreds of individual photographs) into a grid where they are stitched together into a single, very large Gigapan image.
The Global Connection Project won a 2006 “Economic Development Award” from the Tech Museum Awards for its work in creating photographic overlays for Google Earth of areas affected by natural disasters. Government workers and concerned citizens used the images on Google Earth to see which areas needed help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.
On the Gigapan Web site, a user can display a wide bird’s eye panorama and can then zoom in with impressive bug’s eye high-quality detail. On first impression, a panoramic photograph on Gigapan’s site might seem to be simply a wide-angle cityscape of a temple in Kathmandu. With each successive click, however, the user can zoom deeper and deeper into the photo, revealing more and more clear details: a monk hanging prayer flags on the roof of the temple and the Tibet Kitchen Restaurant and Bar a few blocks behind the temple, with a sign extolling passersby to taste their gourmet food.
As part of a continuing effort to connect people and cultures, the Global Connection Project encourages all users to upload their own panoramas from around the world on the Gigapan site. Users can explore such varied landscapes as a temple in Nepal, the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, a market in Guatemala, or the Boston skyline from the Charles River. Because of the much greater number of pixels, the resolution is unprecedented; the Gigapan software and robotic platforms can theoretically produce prints on 40-foot-wide paper without any loss in quality.
Whether or not photographers use the Gigapan mounts and software, anyone can upload their panoramas to the Gigapan Web site. Many users of Gigapan have uploaded standard panorama photographs, as well (although the site suggests photographs be at least 50 megabytes). This is just fine with the Gigapan and the Global Connection Project coordinators, whose aim is simply to encourage exploration and understanding of the various cultures in our world.
The Fine Family Foundation is sponsoring work with the Global Connection Project to enable botanists, geologists, archeologists, and other scientists around the world to document different aspects of the Earth’s cultures and ecosystems using Gigapan technology. Scientists are using Gigapan to document life in the upper redwood forest canopy in California, volcanoes in Hawaii, and glaciers in Norway.
There are also educational uses for the Gigapan: The Pennsylvania Board of Tourism uses Gigapan for Web site visitors wanting to explore Civil War sites virtually. Also, in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Global Connection Project has distributed Gigapan to students in Pittsburgh, South Africa, and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, encouraging them to photograph their local culture and share those panoramas with the world. “The hope is that students will be able to have deeper connections to other cultures,” said Sargent.
A time-lapse Gigapan robotic mount is now in development, and a professional unit for larger SLR-style cameras may be released before the end of 2008.
GigapanTM is a trademark of Carnegie Mellon University.
Originating Technology/NASA Contribution
While developing a measurement acquisition system to be used to retrofit aging aircraft with vehicle health monitoring capabilities, Langley Research Center’s Dr. Stanley E. Woodard and Bryant D. Taylor, of ATK Space, developed a novel wireless fluid-level measurement system.
Current fluid-level measurement methods, which see widespread application, have significant drawbacks, including limited applicability of any one fluid-level sensor design; necessity for each sensor to be supplied power via a direct electrical connection and have a physical connection to extract a measurement; and need for a data channel and signal conditioning electronics dedicated to each sensor. Use of typical wired systems results in other shortcomings, such as logistics for adding or replacing sensors, weight, and the potential for electrical arcing and wire degradations.
The wireless fluid-level measurement system that Woodard and Taylor developed, however, uses sensors that are simple: passive inductor-capacitor circuits. The system is laid out in seven U.S. and international patents and patents-pending, collectively resulting in an inexpensive and safe wireless fuel measurement system that can be used to measure the volume of any fluid at any orientation. A key safety feature unique to the system is that it allows the sensors to be completely encapsulated so that the fuel level can be measured with neither the fuel nor fuel vapors coming in contact with any electrical components of the system, thus eliminating the potential for combustible fuel vapors being ignited by arcing from damaged electrical components.
Woodard explains, “This technology eliminates many of the causes of the TWA Flight 800 and Swissair Flight 111 accidents. These accidents resulted in the loss of 459 lives. In both cases, damage to a direct electrical line from the aircraft power system to a fuel probe inside a fuel tank containing combustible fuel vapors was a critical link in a chain of events that led to these tragedies.”
The sensor is also not subject to the mechanical failure possible when float and lever-arm systems are used—system sensors are powered by oscillating magnetic fields; once electrically excited, each sensor produces its own magnetic field response, the frequency of which corresponds to the amount of fluid within the sensor’s electric field. The system can be used to measure any fluid in any container, including those on aircraft, cars, boats, trains, trucks, or even the space shuttle and satellites. In addition to the safety features, the system is able to automatically recalibrate for new fuels, a feature that is becoming more attractive as the number of flex-fuel vehicles increases.
One especially key advantage of this technology is that it can be used with any system requiring fluid-level measurement, regardless of the fluid being measured. The sensor design can be modified for measuring the level of any fluid or non-gaseous fluid substance that can be stored in a nonconductive reservoir. The inventors demonstrated this by measuring levels of ammonia, liquid nitrogen, salt water, tap water, transmission fluid, bleach, sugar water, and hydrochloric acid—all elements that would easily destroy most electronics. The system’s ability to take accurate measurements of the level of non-liquids has been tested with powdered sugar and ground corn. Perhaps most importantly, it has been used to measure the levels of a variety of petroleum products, which led to its first commercial application.
The NASA technology was of interest to Tidewater Sensors LLC, of Newport News, Virginia, because of its many advantages over conventional fuel management systems, including its ability to provide an accurate measurement of volume while the boat is experiencing any rocking motion due to waves or people moving about on the boat. Like a conventional float gauge, it is quick and easy to install, but unlike the float gauge, this device has no moving parts, is sealed from the elements, and allows the boat owner to use any size or shape tank and still get an accurate reading. The system also introduces no electronics into the tank and has no connections at the sensor that need grounding. These advantages led the company to license the novel fluid-level measurement system from NASA for marine applications.
The Tidewater Sensors commercial version of the NASA measurement system is available under the name TS1500. The non-moving probe contains both the antenna and the sensor as a single unit that is easily interfaced to any of the standard fuel display gauges used. The TS1500 is a simple, safe, easy-to-operate tool that prevents expensive motor damage and helps prevent boaters from getting stranded due to motor failure.
If the TS1500 detects water, it alerts the operator with both an audible and visual alarm: the machine beeps and the fuel gauge fluctuates rapidly between empty and full. Unlike other water sensors, which require that the water be mixed with the fuel and the boat be run for a few minutes before they will operate, this sensor will alert the operator before he leaves the dock. This means that boat operators can avoid an engine-stopping combination of water and fuel in open waters. The TS1500 sounds the alarm as soon as the engine is turned on, if water is present, or as soon as the sensor touches the water.
The product boasts several other advantages over traditional float systems or capacitor sensors: it is highly accurate; senses water in gas, oil, or diesel; and uses a specially formulated rubber gasket capable of withstanding ethanol, as opposed to typical methods that provide rough measurements of fluid in the tank and use cork or butyl rubber stoppers that corrode when exposed to ethanol, leading to leaks. The TS1500 also provides linear measurements of tank capacity, as opposed to the swinging arm of a non-linear measurement, which leaves the needle indicating full for a longer period of time than may be accurate and then moves quickly toward the “E.”
Tidewater Sensors has already built and field tested prototype sensors. Testing took place on boats ranging from 20 to 32 feet long, operating on coastal waters between Delaware and North Carolina. For some high-profile testing, the sensors were installed on the Hampton City (home to Langley) Fire Division’s 30-foot boat, which patrols all 64 miles of the Hampton area shoreline, and the Hampton City Police boat. Sensors were also installed on a Donzi ZF powerboat owned by John Isley of the nationally syndicated morning radio show, John Boy and Billy’s “The Big Show.” With this high-profile testing, and boasting so many clear benefits, the NASA technology is sure to find wide commercial acceptance.
The Mobile Launcher Platform at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is a two-story steel structure that provides a transportable launch base for the space shuttle. The main body of the platform is 160 feet long, 135 feet wide, and 25 feet high. When completely unloaded, the platform weighs about 8 million pounds. When it is carrying the weight of an unfueled space shuttle, it weighs about 11 million pounds.
The heat generated by wind resistance and engine exhaust during the launch of a space shuttle is potentially damaging to the casings on the solid rocket boosters, which provide over two-thirds of the initial thrust needed to propel the spacecraft into orbit. To protect this important equipment, in the 1980s, engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center developed a spray-on insulating process that was applied to the boosters’ forward assembly, systems tunnel covers, and aft skirt. The process involved mixing nine chemicals into an adhesive, and then, acting quickly during a 5-hour window, applying the material. The materials were costly, and if the application was interrupted or not completed within the 5-hour window, the batch was lost. In addition to this drawback, the strength of the material was difficult to regulate, so it often chipped off during flight and splashdown, when the reusable boosters are dropped into the sea. Adding to the downside, two of the nine ingredients were harmful to the environment.
During the Mercury missions, astronauts ate terrible food: freeze- dried powders and semi-liquids in aluminum tubes. Decades later, though, astronauts now have meals prepared by celebrity chefs and access to everyday items like shrimp cocktail, stir-fried chicken, and fettuccine alfredo. While the culinary selection has improved, the developers of these gourmet delights are still faced with a number of challenges.