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.