SOURCE: AEM – April 4, 2019
From machines that fly through space to machines that grind over construction sites and farm fields, it’s tough to imagine how two industries could be more different.
However, not only are there ways that space technologies can be applied in the heavy equipment field, according to NASA Technology Transfer Strategist Steven Gonzalez, but the U.S. space program makes it simple and cheap for industry partners who want to tap into NASA’s deep well of expertise.
“The technologies that we discover along our path to space have benefits to life back here on Earth,” Gonzalez says. “Starting from the very beginning, we have been incentivized to use our technology to help improve life, and to create new markets and new industries from our technology.”
Gonzalez shared his insights with a group of members at AEM’s recent Thinking Forward event, which was held on location at the Houston Space Center and included a behind-the-scenes tour. And he also shared with AEM members some surprising examples of how NASA technologies have been incorporated in industries that are much closer to home.
“Unfortunately, most people, when they talk about technology transfer, they think of Tang, and they think of Velcro,” Gonzalez says. “Neither one of them actually came from NASA, but there are lots of more practical applications that did.”
The Surprising Ways NASA Technology Is Used in Other Fields
From zero gravity to the unforgiving nature of the space environment, NASA engineers find themselves solving some unique and challenging problems. And yet, sometimes their solutions find surprising new life in a field completely unrelated to their original deployment.
Gonzalez offers as one example how technology that allows astronauts to exercise in space is now being used to save the lives of premature babies in U.S. hospitals.
“Hospitals have had this challenge moving their premature infants from one room to another, or between hospitals,” Gonzalez says. “The vibration that they’re subjected to on the carrier would a lot of times damage their internal organs, and a lot of fatalities have resulted from that.”
Texas Children’s Hospital approached NASA in the hopes of finding a technology to dampen those vibrations, Gonzalez says. Together, they discovered the perfect solution in technology NASA had deployed years ago to deaden vibrations from astronauts’ exercise equipment that would interfere with sensitive scientific instruments.
“Now, these children are transported from facility to facility, room to room, as if on a sheet of glass,” Gonzalez says. “There are no vibrations and no more harm to these children.”
Additionally, the precision laser control systems that enable spacecraft to dock in orbit now guide procedures like LASIK eye surgery here on Earth. Mold control technology used to grow plants in space also protects wines as they’re aged in Napa Valley. And NASA nanotechnology is now powering new medical techniques to enable the targeted delivery of chemotherapy directly to cancerous cells.
Robotics, Autonomy, IoT and Other Technologies Equipment Manufacturers Can Use
A major part of the appeal for equipment manufacturers considering a technology partnership with NASA is the space agency’s considerable domain expertise in new and emerging technologies that will play a role in the next generation of construction and agriculture equipment.
“From space to wine, from tractors to irrigation, we are using NASA technology nowadays in ways we might not even be aware of,” Gonzalez says.
The poster child for this potential isn’t a human at all, but the robot that NASA dubbed “Robonaut.” Developed in partnership with General Motors to aid astronauts in physical and maintenance tasks in space, the robot utilizes advanced autonomy, sensor networks and robotic controls that have important applications in manufacturing as well.
“For the manufacturing industry, we created a glove that allows workers in an assembly plant to offload about 10 pounds of pressure from their wrist and their hand so they don’t get carpal tunnel from the repetitive motions,” Gonzalez says.
With technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and Internet of Things expected to play a greater role in heavy equipment, Gonzalez says OEMs should tap into NASA’s years of experience in those fields. NASA has already spent years developing solutions in those fields, he notes, and could help manufacturers avoid potential pitfalls along the way.
How NASA Makes Its Technology Available to Industry
Of course, the simplest answer to an OEM’s technology challenges is to just license a ready-developed solution. And for enterprises interested in licensing NASA technology, the space agency has prepared an easily-accessible menu of options.
At technology.NASA.gov, engineers can peruse a list of more than 1,400 NASA patents that are available to U.S. enterprises. They’re indexed into categories and summarized to make them easy to understand for engineers and designers from a variety of different backgrounds.
“We’re always surprised by inventors and other industries,” Gonzalez says. “They always find applications we never dreamed of for these technologies.”
Descriptions of the technology also include a clickable link, which leads developers to a simple form they can fill out to license a patent from NASA. The cost is minimal, Gonzalez says, and can be waived for start-ups over the course of several years.
NASA also offers more than 1,000 software applications that OEMs can plug into their own control systems, if they find a use for them.
“For a lot of the big data questions, a lot of data analytics, we have applications out there that other industries are embedding in their own code,” Gonzalez says. “There’s a whole range of software that’s available to the community.”
Yet Gonzalez notes that, out of the 1,400 patents NASA makes available for licensing, U.S. industries have only licensed about 14 percent of them.
“That still leaves a huge, untapped opportunity out there,” Gonzalez says. “Part of the challenge is that most people don’t think of NASA technology for Earth applications, so they just don’t think to come to us.”
“But there are many places where we have similar challenges,” Gonzalez adds. “So as your community is thinking about the challenges and technology investments they’re considering, they should look at NASA as a potential partner and see if we can work together to be able to benefit their industry.”