| Volume 13, Number 2 2006
NASA Centers Win R&D 100 Awards
The 44th Annual R&D 100 Awards recognized four NASA centers for excellence in research and development innovation. The technologies demonstrated in the worldwide competition are among the most innovative ideas from academia, government and industry.
Langley Research Center
The measurement acquisition system uses magnetic fields to power sensors and to acquire measurements from sensors. The significance of the new system is that a single sensor can be used to simultaneously measure two or more unrelated physical properties without electrically connecting to any power source or data-collecting hardware. Sensors can be designed for any measurement to take advantage of the system. The measurement system alleviates many shortcomings of traditional measurement acquisition systems. In the aerospace industry alone, wire damage has resulted in critical spacecraft launch delays, and the National Transportation Safety Board accident database includes several aircraft accidents related to wiring issues. The measurement system offers the potential to improve safety and efficiency in the aerospace industry and many other venues.
The new technology was developed over several years by Dr. Stanley E. Woodard of LaRC and Bryant D. Taylor of Swales Aerospace Corporation. Dr. Qamar A. Shams and the late Robert L. Fox of LaRC also provided critical contributions to the system. The group initially worked on the technology as a means for retrofitting aging aircraft with health monitoring technology for NASA’s aeronautics enterprise. The researchers also received funding from the NASA Langley Creativity and Innovation program. Later, they partnered with Messier Dowty, a leading aircraft landing gear manufacturer, to demonstrate the technology to wirelessly measure fluid levels in landing gear shock struts.
The researchers at LaRC have demonstrated numerous sensors that use the measurement system including sensors for measuring any fluid level in any environment, wheel speed, temperature, material phase changes, proximity, position and fuel volume during vehicle pitching and rolling and tamper/damage detection. Using the magnetic field response measurement acquisition system and specially designed passive circuit sensors, accidents that previously caused explosions in fuel tanks would become a thing of the past. For example, today’s aircraft use traditional electronic fuel tank sensors that can short circuit and produce sparks to ignite fuel vapors. With the new technology, this potential for accidental explosion is eliminated.
The new sensors also would be useful to measure fluid volume in fuel tanks subjected to fluctuating orientations. Traditional fuel tank sensors are not accurate when the tank is subjected to non-level conditions. The new sensor technology can measure fluid volume, not just fluid level in a fuel tank.
The system opens up a new paradigm for detecting wear and tear in all types of mechanical systems. Magnetic field fluctuations can be used to measure wheel speed in any kind of external conditions, independent of line of sight. In the trucking industry or the automobile racing industry, this technology can monitor tire tread wear and tire pressure, and it can provide early indications of tire ply separation or belt damage. Similarly, sensors embedded in ship materials could be used to monitor hull integrity in extreme conditions. In the manufacturing industry, the technology could be used to monitor the cure process for all types of materials being produced.
The scientists and engineers who devised the magnetic field response measurement system say they enjoy the challenge of transforming their ideas into reality at NASA. The innovators are already working to apply their inventions on NASA’s next generation Crew Launch Vehicle. Their measurement system could be used to help astronauts monitor the integrity of space suits and assess vehicle health. For example, the system could instantly detect damage to the vehicle caused by impacts from high velocity microscopic objects, thus enabling faster implementation of remediation strategies.
The technology currently is not available in the marketplace, but according to Woodard, the cost of the components can be estimated. The hand-held unit, which includes housing, antenna, LCD display, frequency synthesizer and all associated hardware and software, is expected to be priced near $250 at initial production. Once volume production begins, Woodard says the cost could reasonably fall to the $100 range. Though sensor cost would be a fraction of a cent when built with simple circuits in mass production, more elaborately made sensors would be more expensive.
Not only does this technology enable measurements in any type of environment (including environments characterized by caustic chemicals, extreme temperatures, extreme pressures, or harmful radiation), the system also allows monitoring of multiple sensors on a single data channel and allows a single sensor to simultaneously monitor more than one physical property. According to its designers, the technology would be easy to retrofit into existing systems and is easily scalable. The invention has been awarded three patents and more are on the way.
Goddard Space Flight Center
Developed at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., the Conformal Robotic Gripper has won a spot as one of the top 100 most unique, innovative and noteworthy technologies for 2006.
The technology is a unique gripping mechanism that has the potential to revolutionize robotics by eliminating the need for specialized end effectors and grippers. End effectors are typically designed for very specific tasks and therefore tend to be limited in the range of objects they can accommodate. The gripper’s innovative design uses arrays of pins that gently conform to any object’s shape then lock into position for an extremely secure, yet gentle hold—even against significant external force or torque. This enables the conformal gripper to grasp and manipulate objects of varying size and shape, securely holding an object’s position for repair, machining or assembly.
“It is a true honor to have this technology recognized by R&D, and I appreciate the efforts of everyone who supported and assisted in its development.” says Inventor John Vranish, researcher emeritus. Vranish also stated that continual refinements will be made to simplify operation, lower mass, and lower manufacturing costs for the gripper technology.
The Conformal Gripper was originally designed for use in NASA’s lunar robotics missions. By using this new gripper, spacecraft carrying robots to the Moon, Mars or to repair the Hubble Space Telescope will no longer require multiple end effectors. The Conformal Gripper will be the only end effector needed, drastically cutting down on the robot’s mass and making space robotic activities safer and more capable.
In addition to the space industry, the gripper has applications in manufacturing and other industries that rely on robots to use tools and manipulate objects. This Conformal Gripper will enable superior, affordable and more productive small-batch manufacturing, which is the production of 50 or 100 items. Typically, manufacturing small quantities means automation is not possible and human participation is required, which increases costs. The conformal gripper’s agility and dexterity enable it to use simple tools with superior results, making it possible to automate tasks for small-batch manufacturing without the high cost of custom end effectors.
On the surgical front, robots are assisting doctors in delicate surgery that yields more accuracy with less cutting and speedier recovery times. Precision, miniature conformal grippers can secure and operate simple tools with a sense of location, touch and feel comparable (and in some respects superior) to a human hand.
Other potential uses are in search-and-recovery activities in inhospitable environments, such as rescue missions where it is unsafe for humans to move about or bomb detection and disposal.
“We are extremely pleased that Mr. Vranish’s Conformal Robotic Gripper technology was selected for this award,” says Nona Cheeks, chief of Goddard’s Office of Technology Transfer. “His innovative ideas and tremendous dedication to continually improving the technology will undoubtedly revolutionize robotics in all fields.”
NASA Glenn Research Center’s Communications Division, including Dr. Jeffrey Wilson, Dr. Rainee Simons, Dr. W. Dan Williams and Richard Krawczyk (retired), collaborated with L-3 Communications Electron Technologies Inc., Torrance, Calif., on a Traveling-Wave Tube (TWT) that is being recognized as one of the 100 most technologically significant products introduced into the marketplace over the past year.
The L-3 Communications Electron Technologies Inc. Model 999HA is a high-power, high-efficiency space TWT that will provide high-rate communications for science data and video from deep space NASA missions. This TWT will enable science data and video to be sent at significantly higher rates than previously possible and with reduced cost.
A Traveling-Wave Tube is an electronics device that is used to amplify microwave communications signals. TWTs are needed for high-frequency and high-power applications such as deep space communications because they have significantly higher power capability and efficiency than solid state devices.
The L-3 Communications 999HA TWT will enable direct-to-Earth communications at data rates 75 percent higher than previously possible while decreasing overall mass by 35 percent. It also is operational over a very wide frequency bandwidth of 9 GHz, which provides flexibility for future NASA missions.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Working in conjunction with a number of industry and federal agencies, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., helped create Explorer, a long-range, untethered, self-powered robotic system to visually inspect natural gas pipelines. The system prevents air from coming into contact with the natural gas, ensuring a reliable and safe operation.
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