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Q

When the job demands ingenuity, NASA engineers whip gadgets worthy of James Bond.

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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.


Snakebot

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.

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