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Space tech is not just for rocket scientists

written by Solange Cunin | April 4, 2018

The debate of the value of investing in space is at the front of the Australian space agency conversation. The private space sector has to justify the value of the government’s planned investment continuously, looking for ways that the R&D and technology can apply to other sectors and the general public. It’s a difficult conversation, because it is hard to imagine that any of the elaborate technologies that are built to realise space missions, would have any benefit to us mere Earthlings.

Well, it does. We use rocket science technology in our everyday lives more than you think.

The aviation industry, more than any other, benefits from the R&D and innovations that come out of the space sector. Despite aviation paving the way for the space sector in terms of universal standards and commercial scaling, the innovations achieved by major space agencies like NASA are in turn critical to innovation within the aviation industry.

There are thousands of examples of NASA technologies and innovations that have gone on to benefit other sectors and are used in almost every facet of modern life.

This includes innovations that help find disaster survivors trapped under rubble, purify air and surfaces to stop the spread of germs, and test new materials for everything from aeroplanes to sports shoes.

“NASA technologies dating as far back as the Apollo missions still are improving our quality of life,” says Daniel Lockney, NASA’s technology transfer program executive.

“Meanwhile, innovations made in support of upcoming missions, such as the Orion capsule and the James Webb Space Telescope, are already finding commercial applications. The benefits of the space program continue to accumulate every year.”

With a new space agency coming to Australia, the aviation industry can look forward to the long-term benefits of shared innovations, as happens in other countries with space agencies.

And as the STEM talent crisis continues to cause issues within all technology fields, including space and aviation, the ability to demonstrate the social or human purpose will become the driving factor for recruiting more young people with the skills we need,  into the industry

While indirect, the application of space technology in our everyday lives drives the STEM education mission. With space being at the forefront of inspiration hooks for STEM education, the awareness around how work with the space sector translates to the individual only drives millennial motivation to join the field.

“NASA’s work represents an investment in the future, not just for air and space travel, but for the nation,” said Stephen Jurczyk, associate administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.

“At the same time that NASA’s space exploration missions are inspiring young people to become scientists and engineers, the agency’s work in support of those missions is creating jobs for them across many industrial sectors. Commercial technology spun off from NASA research and technology programs, and missions creates new companies, grows the economy, saves money, keeps us safer, and even saves lives.”

National space agencies across the world target education directly as well. They regularly tie classroom lesson plans, students software licences and other educational materials to their new research and developments, and almost always for free.

There are some innovations that have been used directly in education. For instance, NASA funded a project, AeroPod, that teaches students about climate change and remote sensing through aerial monitoring of ponds and streams, and students can learn the history of the Apollo era through a VR simulation that takes them from launch to landing on the moon of Apollo 11, for free in their classroom.

Is there a better way to inspire young people than allowing them to experience a space mission to the moon?

Innovative design propels the HondaJet faster, further with less fuel

Honda, the budget-friendly, fuel-efficient family car manufacturer,  is now making budget-friendly, fuel-efficient high-powered jets. The HondaJet has the fastest maximum cruising speed in its class and can fly at the highest altitude in its class. It is also less expensive to operate than other light jets because of its higher fuel efficiency.

Honda Aircraft collaborated with NASA and worked with its wind tunnel experts to test its designs of the plane body and its breakthrough over-the-wing engine mount at NASA’s National Transonic Facility, or NTF.

Simplified aircraft modelling packs weeks of analysis into minutes

Any aerospace engineer who has spent weeks waiting for their CFD simulation to complete, only to have to make a small change and to do it again, will be envious of this NASA innovation.

In order to speed up the CFD analysis of aircraft flight conditions, NASA Langley Research Centre created a piece of software that simplifies the computer model of the aircraft. This innovation turns week-long CFD computations into a matter of waiting minutes, enabling faster and more agile design practices – something aerospace engineers dream of.

The software, called reduced order modelling, is now available for licence (so you can stop dreaming), and Huntsville, Alabama-based CFD Research Corporation is using it for current and planned future contracts.

This innovation looks set to fast track the rate in which we can design and innovate within aviation.

Virtual reality helps pilots ‘land’ inflight

Takeoffs and landings are the highest risk phases of flight and also take a toll on aircraft structures, so finding a way to more effectively train pilots for these critical phases of flight will benefit everyone.

With help from Armstrong Flight Research Center, an innovation developed in industry using augmented reality allows safer, more accurate, and cheaper training, and further assists manufacturers to evaluate and design aircraft.

The Fused Reality technology comprises a head-mounted virtual reality tool which layers virtual elements over a view of the real world during flight, allowing pilots to practice landings, inflight refuellings or other demanding scenarios while in the air.

“You actually get the dynamics of the exact airplane you’re flying,” says Bruce Cogan, an aeronautical engineer at NASA Armstrong.
“That means external factors like cross-winds, as well as intrinsic ones like how the plane handles, are all real.”

The software, Cogan explains, can create a virtual runway, where “you can train for this landing task at 5,000ft, so if you mess up, you won’t hurt the airplane. You can go try again.”

“Say I want to practice doing a cross-wind landing in winds that are very close to the limits of how you could actually do a landing,” adds David Landon, CEO of Systems Technology (STI), which built Fused Reality, says.

“If I did it using that virtual runway, I can make an approach down to a virtual touchdown.”

Design software that transforms how commercial airliners are designed

Computational modelling and testing has been a major innovation to benefit the aviation industry, making designing and testing far quicker and cheaper than ever before.

In the early days, using these software packages was almost a profession in itself, but with the NASA-funded Pegasus 5, the work necessary to prepare a design for CFD analysis was greatly reduced, and the level of expertise and training required was also significantly lowered. NASA Ames took over the program and refined it with Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Pegasus 5 has been used in the design of most every NASA spacecraft for the last 15 years, while Boeing has used the software extensively, including in developing the 787 Dreamliner, 737 MAX and the forthcoming 777X.

Drone traffic forecasting

Drones are incredibly useful and have become very popular across a range of applications. But that means we are going to have to get even better at managing airspace.

As NASA Ames worked with the US government to craft regulations for future drone traffic, the team ran into a problem: it needed data on drone flights that wouldn’t exist until regulations were already in place. Under Ames SBIR contracts, a drone traffic forecast was created using planned drone operations from scores of companies and agencies.

The enormous dataset is now commercially available to anyone planning drone operations.

Space-grade insulation keeps beer colder on Earth

Did you know that keeping your beer keg cold can benefit from space technology? You can now keep your keg cold all day by just adding ice to a cover made from the reflective insulation that NASA developed in the ’60s. It’s used in spacecraft and space suits, and now to keep your drink cold!

Earth images enable near-perfect crop predictions

NASA has been producing constant imaging of Earth’s surface since the 1970s. It has worked with a startup out of Boston Uni to create a software product that combines Earth-imaging data with historical data, weather models, and other information to make predictions on crops.

This was able to predict soy yields in 2016 to 99 per cent accuracy.

Planet-navigating AI “brain” helps drones and cars avoid collisions

US-based AI company Neurala has worked with NASA to take advantage of the technology used on Mars rovers where relying on cloud-based AI systems isn’t plausible due to the delayed communications with Earth.

The technology is being used with drone companies, industrial robot manufacturers, and a major automotive manufacturer looking toward self-driving cars.

The navigation and advanced collision avoidance are especially exciting future developments for this technology.


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