NASA's Spinoff Technologies Are Outta This World

NASA's technology is often repurposed for commercial use. How do you think we got ear thermometers, LEDs or scratch-resistant glass lenses? Here are a few ways the next wave of NASA tech will benefit the rest of us.

Credit: NASA

A handheld medical diagnostic device. A cloud-based way to connect emergency responders. Brain monitoring sensors. A bottle that filters water for you.

These are just a few of the commercial products that were created using technology developed by NASA.

"NASA develops technologies to push the boundaries of what's possible in space, but those same technologies also make life better here on Earth," said Daniel Lockney, NASA's Technology Transfer program executive.

NASA technology has long made its way into our everyday lives. Supercomputers, integrated circuits, robotics, nanotechnology and even the military's pre-packaged field rations all can be directly linked to work done by NASA engineers.

Here are some of the more recent technologies that made a name for themselves.

Credit: NASA
From Star Trek to real medicine

Star Trek's Dr. McCoy had his tricorder, a handheld device he used to scan patients. Now an actual handheld medical scanner may be a reality.

NASA's Glenn Research Center is funding Massachusetts-based DNA Medical Institute's work on a device capable of analyzing many health indicators with one simple test. The rHEALTH sensor uses a single blood sample to measure dozens of biomarkers, including blood sugar, thyroid and cholesterol levels, thanks to nanotechnology. rHEALTH is expected to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration this year.

NASA needs the device to monitor astronauts on deep space missions, but it also will be useful on Earth, particularly in rural areas that lack easy access to medical labs.

Credit: NASA
Southwest Airlines takes off with NASA tech

Data-mining tools are making Southwest Airlines' flights safer, and the company can thank NASA algorithms for that.

It's a challenge to determine what normal operations look like for every aircraft — whether it's a spacecraft or an airliner  — then figure out how to monitor those operations. Problems don't always stand out when there's an enormous amount of data generated by every flight.

Researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center applied data-mining algorithms to aviation safety problems, using the software to comb through flight data to find anomalies.

Southwest signed a Space Act Agreement with Ames in 2011 to use those tools, helping the company refine its safety practices, improve safety reviews and increase flight efficiencies, NASA reported.

Credit: NASA
Space robots lend a hand on Earth

While building a robot to work with astronauts on the International Space Station, engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center developed software for robotic reasoning and human interaction that is improving robotic systems here on Earth.

NASA engineers built Robonaut 2, a 300-pound humanoid robot that has been working on the space station since 2011. The robot is expected to eventually take over some basic duties, like cleaning and maintenance, freeing up the astronauts to do more critical work. It might even work outside the space station one day.

According to NASA, the work on Robonaut 2 led to patents now held by Tennessee-based Universal Robotics. The NASA-derived technology is available for use in markets like warehousing and mining.

Credit: NASA
Tackling emergencies with the cloud

NASA worked with Baltimore-based StormCenter Communications to develop an improved cloud-based platform for sharing data online in real time. Because the data is stored in the cloud, multiple emergency managers can access the data during critical relief missions, such as those following hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.

In the past, emergency responders and various agencies had trouble accessing information and communicating with each other during crises.

This collaboration tool enables organizations to share information, visualize data with 3D virtual globes and maps, and collaborate no matter what hardware or operating systems they're using. The tool helps emergency managers from different states, regions and countries to manage resources, coordinate cross-border law enforcement efforts and track impacts.

Credit: NASA
Drink up, Earthlings!

Thanks to NASA's work to give astronauts on the International Space Station drinkable water, a company is selling a water bottle that will let hikers, travelers and everyday people safely filter lake, stream or even tap water.

Since water is sparce in space, NASA scientists developed water filters that enable astronauts to safely recycle wastewater, sweat and even their own urine.

California-based ÖKO developed a water bottle using the same NASA filter to purify water for consumers. The company has three levels of filtration, ranging from bottles designed to filter out chlorine from tap water to bottles for hikers and travelers depending on more unreliable water sources.

Users can make water drinkable by simply squeezing it through the bottle.

Credit: NASA
Brain sensors help distracted minds

A North Carolina-based company has taken neurofeedback technology developed at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia and used it to develop software for improving concentration and performance.

The technology was developed to monitor the alertness of astronauts and pilots by measuring brain signals. Helmet sensors read electrical brain signals and translate them into data, enabling the space agency to monitor users' concentration levels.

NASA scientists also found they could improve people's concentration by enabling them to control, say, a video game, with only their thoughts via the sensors.

Unique Logic and Technology Inc. replaced the helmet with a brainwave monitor that attaches to an arm or leg and transmits signals wirelessly to a computer. The technology is designed for students, athletes and business workers.

Credit: NASA
From space gloves to dress shirts

Johnson Space Center did a lot of research on phase change materials (PCMs), which can absorb or emit huge amounts of energy while maintaining a near constant temperature.

The space agency focused its research on using the materials in spacesuit gloves to maintain comfortable temperatures for the astronauts during spacewalks.

Boston-based Ministry of Supply developed a dress shirt, dubbed Apollo, that incorporates the NASA-based PCMs and is designed to wick away moisture and control odors and bacterial growth.

Credit: NASA
Shuttle engines revolutionize solar power

NASA's space shuttles needed powerful engines to lift off and reach Earth orbit. Those engines, the RS-25, three in each shuttle, were built by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in conjunction with Rocketdyne, a rocket engine design and manufacturing company based in California. Scientists at Rocketdyne, which changed hands several times over the years, consequently learned about extreme temperatures and how energy is transferred.

They put that knowledge to use developing tower plants that use concentrated solar power to produce large amounts of energy.

The technology was later licensed to California-based SolarReserve, which develops large-scale solar power projects. The company is building a plant in Nevada that is expected to power 75,000 homes during peak electricity periods.

Credit: NASA
Mars life support spawns durable wind turbines

NASA scientists' search for a renewable energy source that will work on Mars has led to powerful, durable wind turbines here on Earth.

Planning for the day when astronauts will live and work on Mars, scientists at Ames Research Center needed to create an ecological system to sustain astronauts there, and an energy source has to be part of that system.

For that, researchers partnered with Vermont-based Northern Power Systems to develop wind power technology. The company tested its turbines at the South Pole to mimic the harsh conditions of the Red Planet.

NASA reported that Northern Power has more than 200 NASA-derived wind turbines in use around the globe, helping to power farms, businesses, schools and hospitals.

Credit: NASA
Can you hear me now? Improving satellite communications

Work that NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center did to create an inexpensive spacecraft with off-the-shelf parts has helped one company facilitate better and cheaper satellite communications.

NASA's Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite, also know as FASTSAT, was built to demonstrate researchers’ capability to build, deploy and operate a science and technology flight mission at lower costs than previously possible. In 2012, the satellite wrapped up a successful two-year, on-orbit demonstration mission.

Part of building the satellite meant developing a low-cost telemetry unit, which is used to facilitate communications between the satellite and its receiving station.

Alabama-based Orbital Telemetry Inc. licensed the NASA technology and is offering to install the cost-cutting units on other commercial satellites.

Credit: NASA
NASA software takes on complex math

Ames Research Center partnered with Delaware-based EM Photonics Inc. back in 2007 to put video game technology to work solving complex math problems.

EM Photonics worked with graphical processing units, also known as GPUs. The specialized electronic circuits are designed to accelerate the creation of images, but they also can be used to tackle complex math problems.

The company used GPU technology to develop its high-computing software, CULA. The software gives users the ability to run complex algorithms on personal computers with greater speed.

EM Photonics used the GPUs to accelerate commonly used linear algebra functions used by millions of developers in the scientific and engineering community. The company unified them into a single, accelerated package.