Volume 9, Number 6 November/December 2001 Welcome
NASA Technology Assists People Through US Industry
By Merle McKenzie
In 1958, Congress created NASA, giving the agency direction to lead Americas space program. It also mandated that the agency make available to the US industrial community the leading-edge aeronautics and aerospace technologies required for NASAs ambitious missions. For many years, the advanced technologies generated by NASAs technical communities have been successfully leveraged through NASAs commercialization program for the benefit of US industry. Companies who have partnered with NASA or licensed NASA technology have created new products, improved existing products and/or made internal processes more efficient. The result has been a positive impact on local, if not national economies, and notable increases in competitiveness.
Examples of technologies that have been successfully transferred by private industry are legion. They range from technology that makes de-icing a planes wings safe and cost-effective to non-invasive tools that enable machines to smell on the International Space Station, as well as on the ground; from developing a new curriculum to educate the space explorers of tomorrow to improved active pixel sensor cameras for spacecraft, as well as consumer products. The years have proven that advanced NASA technology can and is commonly used by US companies to improve their bottom line.
Yet, that is just the perspective of those involved with the government missions and the private sector. Through the history of the NASA commercialization program, these effective partnerships have also benefited a third party who directly gains from NASAs cooperation with US industry through products that would not have been available otherwise. NASA technology and US companies have contributed notable advanced technologies for assistive products for daily life.
A few cases of NASA technology leveraged for assistive products are: a robotic stepper device developed from technology at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that may help wheelchair-bound people take their first steps; a new material from the Marshall Space Flight Center that can be used to produce master molds for prosthetic devices; an initiative encouraged and partially funded by Goddard Space Flight Center to study the effect of patient-friendly technology on pain palliation for terminally ill patients; a selectively lockable knee brace developed by NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center that allows for knee movement, while still providing support for the knee; and an eye tracker that allows people with limited mobility the means to communicate and control their environment. The latter, originally developed by a small company in Fairfax, Virginia, is now more compact, ambient light tolerant and marketed at a lower price through technical innovations from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In cases such as these, the company has utilized the advanced technology developed by NASA to develop new products or improve existing ones. The ultimate beneficiaries are the assistive technology users, who gain leverage or ease in daily living, making these triple-use technologies.
Success in this arena is not easy; many difficulties arise in the commercialization of these technologies. There is no one single assistive technology market. Instead, there are a number of small niche markets. Owing to the small market size and the need to customize a device for each user type, few economies of scale can be practiced, and some devices are not covered by insurance. Also, a relatively small number of companies are serving the niche markets.
Additionally, one size fits all does not work in this market. Many times, the commercial product must be adapted or fitted to individual users, and commonly requires training for ease of use. It is especially important to work with the user community when developing and manufacturing assistive technologies.
Because the respective markets are relatively small, the user community has such significant requirements and the ultimate use is frequently customized, it is an area in which normal market forces do not necessarily result in a high volume of advanced technology moved quickly to market by early adopters. It is instead an appropriate area in which government-funded technology should be leveraged wherever possible. Although not easy, by collaborating with both private industry and the end-users, NASA can continue to make significant contributions to everyday lives. Q