For over 40 years, Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, has been leading the way to beneficial partnerships between industry, academia, and the Government. From the opening of the first National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics' wind tunnel at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1922, the facility now known as Langley Research Center has been consistently involved in the dissemination of aerospace research-derived technologies to the Nation. While playing a pivotal role in the development of aircraft for defense and commercial uses through the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, the Center also was instrumental in the successful new assignments for the "Space Race" that the newly reorganized National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was tasked with in the 1960s and 1970s.
NASA's Industrial Applications Program, later renamed the Technology Utilization Program (TUP), was started in 1962 with the plan to foster greater utilization of beneficial, new innovations beyond their initial aerospace applications. The Langley Technology Utilization Office, formed in 1964, was the first organization at the Center tasked with the transfer of aerospace technology to commercial industry. Increased emphasis on the importance of technology transfer and commercialization resulted in the formation of the Technology Application Group (TAG) in 1994. TAG was charged with proactively improving the effectiveness of the Langley Commercialization Program. This organization has been known as the Technology Commercialization Program Office since 1999, and has been instrumental in many successful transfers of technology to industry. Industries that have benefited from the transfers run the gamut from medical, transportation, construction, and manufacturing, to energy generation, and even recreation.
One of the TUP's most notable contributions was to the transportation safety industry. Most drivers are familiar with grooved highway surfaces, but few realize that these grooves were the result of Langley aeronautical research. This safety enhancement concept was developed through the hydroplaning program that began at Langley in 1962 with the goal of improving the control of aircraft touching down during wet weather. Surface grooves in concrete significantly improve wet weather traction for stopping and steering. It was easy for Langley engineers to see the need for the benefits of their research in public roadway systems. As a testament to the TUP's work, every state in the Nation today has miles of grooved pavement to enhance the safety of its roadways during wet weather. Also, research shows that the grooves increase the life of the pavement by 5 to 10 percent, decreasing the frequency of expensive repaving projects. Grooves on potentially slippery surfaces also benefit pedestrian areas, industrial factories, pools, and playgrounds. Grooved surfaces may affect people more than any other NASA spinoff application to date.
Another Langley technology that contributes to the safety of aircraft landing is the airborne wind shear detection system that was developed and refined at the Center. Wind shear occurs when invisible bodies of air are traveling in different directions to each other at different speeds. When an aircraft encounters this disturbance, the pilots can have severe difficulty in correcting the resulting changes in flight path, particularly when they are close to the ground for landing. This invisible aviation hazard is so dangerously unpredictable that about 26 aircraft crashed, resulting in over 500 fatalities between 1964 and 1985. After a Delta Airlines jetliner was brought down by wind shear near Dallas in August 1985, it was evident that something had to be done to provide pilots with greater advance warning of wind shear situations. The Federal Aviation Administration and Langley combined forces to develop better wind shear detection capabilities for airlines and the military. The first challenge was to learn how to model and predict the phenomenon. Langley developed the F-factor metric that is now the standard for determining if the airflow ahead of an aircraft is dangerous wind shear. The next step was to determine what sort of detector was the most effective in detecting the wind shear 10 seconds to 1minute ahead of a flying aircraft. Langley's 737 flying laboratory flew over 130 missions into extreme weather situations, learning how to hunt the invisible hazards 2 to 3 miles ahead of the aircraft. The resulting technological advances have enabled aircraft to read the speed and direction of invisible particles of water vapor or dust in the wind and provide pilots the necessary advance warning of wind shear conditions. Doppler radar-based systems were also developed based on the Langley research. This type of system has been commercially certified by several companies and was first flown on commercial aircraft by Continental Airlines less than 2 years after the Langley Wind Shear Program declared "mission accomplished!" and concluded testing.
As a result of this pioneering work, aircraft manufacturers throughout the world today are mandated to supply new airliners with wind shear detection systems as standard safety equipment.
Not to be outdone, Langley materials researchers have been developing revolutionary materials over the past 40 years as well. Some materials, such as the colorless polyimide, have been qualified for use in space flight. Others, such as the rp-46 high-temperature (600°F) polymer, are used in lightweight bearings for the Boeing 777. With new materials constantly entering commercial use, it is difficult to cull a single one for consideration. If sales figures are used as a measure of significance, a Langley-developed, flexible, high-temperature adhesive stands out from the pack. The polyimide adhesive is used on flexible circuit boards produced by one of the Nation's largest circuit board manufacturers, the Rogers Corporation. The flexible circuits are used in many applications, but primarily in high-speed computer disk drives. This advance in adhesive technology has resulted in cumulative sales of over $135 million in less than 10 years and is expected to produce a total of over $300 million prior to patent expiration.
As advances are made in the new fields of materials,
such as shape memory materials, morphing technology, and nanotechnology,
Langley plans to partner with companies much earlier than it had done
so in the past. This will ease the transition from government development
to industry manufacture and speed up the prototype to manufacture cycle.
It is expected that NASA will also benefit from the resulting acceleration
in technology development and the reduced costs of technologies as
they progress from exclusively high-tech applications to broad commercial
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