The Engineer's eBay

 Walk and Roll Robot

Walk and Roll Robot

NASA does not leave spinoffs to serendipity. Ordered by Congress to serve a stimulating function, the agency has a technology transfer (T2) program designed to push out the information ore to the private sector as rapidly as possible. Its T2 website serves as a kind of engineering eBay, a catalogue of tempting technologies available for licensing. Any company specializing in optics, software, communications, medicine, robotics, batteries, power generation, electronics, instrumentation, fluid systems, coatings, sensors, materials, and the environment can find pre-packaged patents to adapt for private development.

Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but I imagine that anyone who loves technology would enjoy perusing the patent portfolio. Even the names of the patents are irresistible. How can you not click on “Polarization Dependent Whispering Gallery Modes in Microspheres”? These optical structures allow extremely sensitive response to narrow wavelengths, similar to a whispering gallery, which “ignores” other sounds to convey a conversation. Dielectric microspheres, developed at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, offer miniaturized uses for sensors in aircraft, health monitors, and optical communications.

Glenn also developed a NanoWire glass switch that uses one-sixtieth the power of conventional microelectromechanical systems, allowing low-cost, low-energy GPS systems and RFID devices—those gadgets that eliminate toll booths on highways and create smart keys. In fact, NASA’s extensive work with antennas (obviously an important aspect of space missions) has accelerated RFID development. The Johnson Space Center has invented a new technology that greatly extends the range of RFID. The system promises to improve location systems for first responders, enable hospitals to track patients more efficiently, and help shippers track packages in bad weather.

Anyone with a strand of geek DNA will want to click on the Robotics section of the patent portfolio. The Walk & Roll Robot combines wheels with pivoting hip and knee joints enabling the robot to traverse all sorts of terrains without expending a lot of energy. Plus it can turn at high speeds. Besides potential uses in urban search and rescue and scientific exploration, it could potentially become one of the coolest mechanical toy pets ever invented.

Not all NASA robots are self-contained (although the Robonaut series—human-sized humanoids—can already work side-by-side with astronauts). The Robo-Glove, developed at the Johnson Space Center in collaboration with General Motors, is a lightweight glove that allows a strong grasp with minimal effort, and offers feedback to the touch. The glove offers promise in a wide range of uses, from construction and manufacturing to medicine.

The patents range from the cool to the potentially transformative. NASA’s work on battery technology, a critical part of space exploration, could help solve one of the biggest challenges of renewable energy. Unlike fossil fuels, solar and wind power fail to generate continuous energy. We continue to use energy when the Sun goes down and the wind stops. The obvious, and elusive, answer is to store excess energy for use when needed. While batteries have improved over the past few decades, the advances have not come close to what we have seen in other areas of electronics—computer chips in particular. The more energy a battery can store, the larger and heavier the battery gets. This is a particular challenge with space missions, where rockets must carry equipment beyond the Gravity Well. One solution is to make batteries operate more efficiently, by sensing and regulating energy flows. NASA has developed a bevy of patents that allow the management of a variety of batteries.