Credit: Wired

A group of engineers conversing in the cafeteria of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in March 2020, as the Covid-19 epidemic started to spread across the US, realised how deadly the respiratory illness would become. They were aware that having extra ventilators would be beneficial. Within a few weeks, they had pieced together a ventilator they dubbed VITAL that is simple to put together and is built of less than 100 pieces, all of which are easily accessible through supply chains.

The US Food and Drug Administration had granted VITAL an emergency use authorization at the end of April. Since then, more than 100 commercial medical device makers have requested a free licence to create their own version. These ventilators are now widely utilised around the world, notably in Brazil and India.

The ventilator is one of several technologies—including environmental sensors, novel materials, and collaborative robots—that NASA’s scientists and engineers helped create and disseminate in its book-length Spinoffs 2022 study, which was released on Monday. The DNA of the organisation is one of sharing: The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which established NASA, requires the organisation to make its technology available to the private sector, as well as to state and municipal governments.

Don’t just fire all this knowledge and technology into orbit, warns Dan Lockney, chief of NASA’s Technology Transfer Programme. Make certain that it benefits people on Earth in real, beneficial ways. Currently, NASA owns more than 1,200 patents, and businesses can request licences to utilise them. According to Lockney, the fundamental criteria is that there be a realistic road to commercialization. For new businesses, the licences are free; for more established ones, there is a small cost. Since 1976, the organisation has recorded almost 2,000 spinoffs. “NASA gets asked to do things that have never been done before, and in the process we inevitably invent things that have never existed before,” claims Lockney.

NASA has been assembling the components for each trip with the help of private industry for many years. These components include not only rockets and spacecraft but also spacesuits, food for astronauts, tools, software, and technology to monitor and safeguard their health. After claiming “mission accomplished,” the executives of such private firms occasionally wish to exploit the technology they contributed to for other things. New applications for a NASA innovation have also been proposed by outside businesses or startups. Furthermore, NASA employees can contribute on their own, such as with the VITAL ventilators.

Consider the R2 as an example. The Robonaut 2, also known as R2, was created as a result of a partnership between NASA and General Motors engineers. It is a humanoid robot that is intended to work alongside humans to complete tedious or hazardous jobs in settings like the International Space Station. The Swedish business Bioservo Technologies has now licenced and commercialised those patents for industrial-strength robotic gloves.

The Bioservo Ironhand, a pair of thin, connected sensors that snugly fit under a person’s work glove and connect to a power pack that can be worn in a backpack, is the result of the prototype Robo-Glove, which was inspired by R2. When the wearer tries to touch anything, the sensors notice and the glove takes over, gripping it for them as firmly and as long as they choose. This version would be worn by industrial employees on Earth who must move large goods or do repetitive chores with their hands as opposed to being worn in space. “Factories have tried to introduce automation, and what’s left is more manual labor because you can’t really automate things you do with your hands—they’re so complex. That’s where we come in, because this creates strain injuries in the hand,” says Mikael Wester, Bioservo’s marketing director.

Swedish company Bioservo Technologies’ Ironhand, based on a set of patents from NASA and GM’s Robo-Glove, is the world’s first industrial-strength robotic glove for factory workers and others who perform repetitive manual tasks.

NASA has long experimented with space farming, raising everything from chile peppers on the International Space Station to food intended for lengthy trips to Mars. These endeavours include attempting to grow crops, including potatoes in the Mark Watney fashion, in controlled conditions with little to no access to sunshine and little water.

One business has already used some of the knowledge gained from a NASA research to improve its operations. Bowery Farming, situated in New York, has vertical hydroponic farms where plants are grown on shelves attached to a wall with water being continuously recycled. A handful of Bowery’s workers had previously worked on a NASA-funded study at the University of Arizona, which was a forerunner to studies on plant growth in an Antarctica-based space habitat. “NASA really set the stage for academics to advance, which then allowed us to advance,” says the author. According to Henry Sztul, the chief scientific officer of Bowery, they sowed the seed that has developed to enable us to be where we are.

There are several other instances, such as the technology that uses a person’s own heartbeat to unlock smart gadgets and aerogel insulation, which is currently utilised in blankets and shoes. However, not every invention attributed to NASA engineers was truly created by them. Fisher really produced the space pens that were mocked in the show Seinfeld during the Apollo period. Additionally, neither Velcro, Tang, nor Teflon were developed by NASA.

While certain space-related investments, such as financing for the International Space Station and the James Webb Space Telescope, have drawn criticism from certain US legislators, there has typically been bipartisan support for the technologies and commercial uses that eventually result from NASA’s research and development. “The spinoff technologies are unquestionably one of the pillars we deploy when we fight for science. Some members of Congress have expressed interest in that message, according to Julie Davis, the American Astronomical Society’s public policy fellow in Washington, DC.

Lockney and his colleagues at NASA’s Technology Transfer Programme work to emphasise the long-term and widespread advantages that frequently result from financial support for the organisation. “These technologies provide fascinating goods and services when we spin them off. But they also represent organisations, frequently tiny firms, that support their regional economies by bringing in new employees and creating employment, claims the author.

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