When the job demands ingenuity, NASA engineers whip gadgets worthy of James Bond.
- By Eric Adams
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
James Bond has Q. NASA has John Vranish, Gregory Dorais, and Sarath Gunapala.
But we'll start with Q. In Ian Fleming's famous books-and the even more famous movies they spawned-suave British super-spy James Bond, agent 007, often relies on complex gadgetry as much as his own wits to get the job done. That gadgetry comes from a clever, eccentric engineer with a single-letter code name. Q spends his days in the basement of a government building in London overseeing the development of such novelties as jet packs, rocket-firing 35-mm cameras, miniature radio transmitters, homing beacons hidden in buttons, laser guns, X-ray devices as small as a cigarette case, exploding alarm clocks, and a particularly wicked umbrella whose ribs contain razor- sharp knives that slam into the holder's neck when water hits the umbrella.
NASA gadgeteers-Vranish, Dorais, Gunapala, and dozens of other engineers in NASA centers around the country-are tasked with much less lethal assignments-but their work can be just as fascinating. Softball-sized spherical robots, hand-held infrared cameras, robotic snakes, and personal flying vehicles are just a few of the marvelous devices that would make Q envious and serve as perfect aids for intrepid international spies.
And like the Bond gadgets, the ones in this batch often require as much skill to use as they did to design. So as we tour NASA's labs for a look at their most wondrous little inventions-some stand-alone, some part of larger systems-remember the admonishment of the often-exasperated Q: "Pay attention, 007!"
James Bond would love this one: The SoloTrek XFV, a ducted fan-powered personal flying machine. Indeed, Bond has been down this road before. In the opening scenes of 1965's Thunderball, the agent makes a noisy getaway in a Bell-Textron Jet Pack on loan from the U.S. Army.
The more contemporary-and much quieter-NASA version is a new twist on the short-lived, very-short-range (30 seconds flight time) jet pack. Using unique ducted-fan engines, the SoloTrek will carry commuters, soldiers, and other adventurers for up to two hours at 70 mph.
SoloTrek is actually the brainchild of Michael Moshier, president and CEO of Millennium Jet, Inc., of Sunnyvale, California. Moshier's team is getting a technology boost from the engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center in California through a cooperative agreement. "Our company formed in 1996, and I was pulling in talent to make the idea work," Moshier, a former Navy fighter pilot who served in Vietnam, recalls. "NASA saw our Web site and approached us about the project. There's no money changing hands, but we get lots of resources and time and energy, and they can use the test results in other projects."
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.
If Q had designed this robotic snake, he would probably just have it slither up to an enemy's Mercedes and explode. NASA's vision is a bit more ambitious: explore new worlds and inspect spacecraft inside and out.
The task is difficult. Serpentine robotics is among the hardest-and thus least researched-fields. "A robotic snake is a wide-open engineering problem," says Charles Neveu, an Ames contractor employed by QSS Group, Inc. "We found that very attractive."
Neveu, a computer scientist who is working on the project with leader Silvano Colombano, explains that serpentine movement is useful in space exploration because it allows for a variety of tasks: burrowing into the ground or crawling through the labyrinthine innards of spacecraft to inspect hard-to-reach parts. Wheels and legs are ineffective in microgravity, he points out, but the ability to coil around pipes and slither through narrow passageways is very handy. "A snake is basically one long prehensile tail, so a robotic snake can swing like a monkey from one structural member to the next," Neveu says.
Snakebot now exists only as a prototype, powered by off-the-shelf hobby motors at each joint and formed from plastic bolted and glued together ("It cost us less than $500 and works great!" Neveu says). A second prototype under construction incorporates sensors to tell when the robot is touching things and at what angle each of its joints is positioned-crucial for maintaining precise control. The scientists programmed the first prototype to execute undulatory, inchworm, and sidewinder motions.
The challenge they now face is getting Snakebot to go where they want it to. "Thrashing around will move the snake, but if you want to do anything specific it gets really hard really fast," Neveu says. The answer: software simulation. The team will devise a computerized snake, environment, and control system, then introduce learning schemes and evolvable intelligence. Once the simulated Snakebot learns how to crawl around, they'll transfer the technology to the real snake.
It probably would be easier to just make it creep up somewhere and explode.
Personal Satellite Assistant
This little red ball-the Personal Satellite Assistant-is a cross between the all-knowing computer HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the small floating sphere that shoots tiny laser blasts at Luke Skywalker in Star Wars-although the PSA's designers don't expect their invention to go berserk and fire at astronauts.
What they do expect is that the PSA will help astronauts working aboard the International Space Station. Engineers Yuri Gawdiak and Gregory Dorais are in charge of developing the PSA at the Ames center. There, the PSA prototype is being put through a variety of tests that will lead up to eventual usage aboard the ISS.
Dorais explains that, for starters, the PSA will be able to monitor environmental conditions aboard the station, providing a backup check to the station's sensors. "If they lost pressure or power, or if there was a fire and they didn't know what toxic gases were released and whether or not they should sleep, the PSA would monitor that for them and function independently of the ship's systems," Dorais explains.
The PSA maneuvers with small fans and incorporates stereo cameras and display screens that will help astronauts monitor multiple experiments simultaneously. It can be used to communicate with other astronauts as well as external computer databases.
The next challenge is getting the PSA to understand voice commands and behave independently. "We want to get beyond the current technology to dialogue management, and we're using some pretty high-level autonomy software to control its movements and actions," says Dorais, who hopes the PSA will be ready for service by 2006. "It's quite a bit like science fiction."
Gadgets don't have to do startling things to be clever. This award-winning little wrench is a case in point: Though it appears to be an ordinary hardware store ratchet, it represents a significant leap in mechanical technology. John Vranish, an engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, conceived of it to solve a sticky problem astronauts might encounter while assembling hardware in orbit. "We've had 'clickless' ratchets before, but they don't work reliably in space," Vranish says, "because the greases used in these tools often cause slippage and eject gases that can get all over things like optics." And ratchets that do click require so much travel between "clicks" that it's almost impossible to use them in tight spaces.
Vranish's wrench incorporates something known as a 3-D sprag, which permits the wrench to travel in only one direction through a wedging action. "A 2-D sprag is basically a roller which locks in one direction and slips in the other," he explains. "A 3-D sprag is like a disc with wedges and contacts on the surface of those wedges. It locks up better, is more compact, and can withstand more force. It is a fundamentally new mechanical component."
This technology-which also works better than conventional ratchet wrenches in tight spots on Earth-makes ratchetless wrenches possible. NASA is negotiating with several well-known companies that want to market the wrench for industrial and consumer applications. So this is one gadget that James Bond will be able to pick up at Home Depot.
Robots are slowly beginning to look the way we expect them to-that is, like us. Robonaut, being developed by engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, is heading seriously in that direction-and for some very good reasons. "All the robotic devices we've flown on the space shuttle so far have been very large-scale manipulator systems and require specialized [fixtures and attachments] to be utilized," says Chris Culbert, head of the robotic technologies branch at JSC. "But most of NASA's vehicles are designed around humans for maintenance. So we set out to design a human-form robot." This, he says, saves NASA time and money, since engineers can eliminate robot-specific attachments and astronauts can be assisted by robots with a greater range of access and activity.
The current prototype has two arms, two hands, a torso, and a head. It is controlled by a human wearing a virtual reality hood-and-glove system, though its designers hope to eventually give it more autonomy. Their biggest challenge to date, however, has been equaling the engineering of the human hand and simply getting the robot to do what a human wearing a spacesuit glove can do. "That was our first real breakthrough," Culbert says. "We were shrinking existing technology to create a human-sized hand that has all the same movement and strength."
Robonaut will most likely be placed into service aboard the ISS or the shuttle, where its pogo-like leg can be attached anywhere on the vehicle-rather than at a single point as with robotic arms-to conduct repairs, install equipment, and assist with experiments while being controlled by an astronaut inside. For planetary exploration, Robonaut can be mounted on a wheeled rover, like a centaur. Looking even farther into the future, Culbert expects to one day complete the humanoid form. "We're facing some interesting balance and strength challenges," he says. "We as humans have a slew of systems that allow us to lean over and pick something up, but Robonaut will need very advanced software and control systems to do that. Maybe someday, though."
Object Recognition Processor
Like the Johnson Space Center engineers who modeled Robonaut after the human form, computer scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory turned to the human model for their latest effort-though they looked more inward than out. Their Three-Dimensional Artificial Neural Network (3DANN) processor models the neural networks of the human brain to allow machines to identify objects practically as well as people do. "This little camera system can very quickly zoom onto specific features of objects to recognize them," says JPL computer scientist Anil Thakoor. "With the human eye, for example, you will not really recognize a car by its actual measurements, but your brain will recognize the concept of a car. That is what this cube is good at: recognizing objects by looking at their inherent qualities."
The sugar-cube-size processor can execute one trillion operations per second while consuming only 8 watts of power. This performance is several orders of magnitude greater than the capabilities of state-of-the-art desktop computers, which deliver about one billion operations per second while consuming 200 watts of power.
This means that weight- and power-sensitive spacecraft will be able to navigate visually and identify landing sites and obstacles on their own, without wasting time-and money-going back and forth with NASA controllers on Earth. Furthermore, planetary robots and rovers will be capable of autonomous selection of scientifically interesting features to study. Back home, the camera has already proven itself able to identify a cruise missile in various orientations, scales, and lighting conditions and amid a high level of background clutter.
All of these compact contraptions arise from the unique demands of challenging tasks in utterly inhospitable environments, and they require innovation, imagination, and pure technological prowess-a list that could call to mind only one federal agency. "People usually ask me how we approach things. If there's a tough problem, we need to get outside the box and think of an innovative approach that will work," says Goddard's John Vranish. "We'll dig in and find a way to do it. In the end, it has to be on budget and on time, but it also has to be superior. It has to work as required and at all costs not fail."
Q would wholeheartedly agree.