When the job demands ingenuity, NASA engineers whip gadgets worthy of James Bond.
- By Eric Adams
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 2 of 6)
Having completed wind tunnel tests at Ames, the SoloTrek is now undergoing high-power static thrust testing. Ultimately, the heart of its success will be its finely tuned, highly efficient ducted fans, which are powered by a two-stroke, 110-horsepower piston engine that will eventually be replaced with a small turboshaft jet engine. NASA engineer William Warmbrodt, head of the aeromechanics branch at Ames, says that new lightweight materials have permitted significant advances in the ducted-fan technology developed in the 1950s. "The duct system alters the airflow into and out of the fan to reduce the amount of energy that is lost in the wake and thus, along with the lighter components, lower the amount of power necessary," he says. "With vanes positioned in the outwash, we have a very maneuverable aircraft."
The first fully operational SoloTrek built will go to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has provided $5 million in development funding and has an obvious interest in acquiring more of the vehicles for special forces assignments. Moshier also has heard that the producers of the James Bond films are keen on it. "We expect to hear from them very soon," he laughs.
Hand-Held Infrared Video Camera
For decades, high-performance infrared imaging has languished at the same level: big, expensive, and hard to make. But NASA's engineers seem to have cracked the code with the technology behind this handy infrared video camera. The miniature marvel can spot people trapped in burning buildings, detect breast tumors, help pilots see at night, and even identify rockets by their plumes.
The camera uses a newly developed array of highly sensitive infrared detectors known as QWIPs-quantum-well infrared photodetectors-that cover longer wavelengths than could be seen with previous detectors, says team leader Sarath Gunapala of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. While most people are aware of the night vision capabilities of near-infrared imaging, far-infrared imaging is much more useful. Objects glow brightest in the longer-wavelength far infrared, and the atmosphere in this part of the electromagnetic spectrum is transparent, allowing for clearer ground-based astronomical observations and space-based surveillance of Earth.
JPL's Center for Space Microelectronics Technology and a Raytheon subsidiary called Amber developed the technology, which, compared with traditional infrared devices, is far less expensive because the QWIPs are fabricated with the same mature techniques used in cellular telephones and lasers for compact disc players. This has generated considerable interest in the private sector. "In the past, people haven't used infrared much because the cameras were these huge things," Gunapala points out. "So we knew when we started to make a small camera that there would be other commercial uses."
Foremost among these are medical applications. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved the BioScan System, developed by OmniCorder Technologies, for the early detection of breast cancer. BioScan exploits QWIP's ability to discern minute temperature variations-indicators of tumor development-during high-speed, high-resolution imaging. Other possible uses include law enforcement, search and rescue, and, of course, covert spy operations in distant, romantic settings.