Spinoffs of Tomorrow


Satellite image of EarthInset: OMEGA System diagram

The OMEGA System

An algae photobioreactor using floating enclosures with semi-permeable membranes

The OMEGA system is an innovative method for growing algae, cleaning wastewater, capturing carbon dioxide, and producing biofuel and other useful products. Algae grows in floating flexible plastic enclosures with semi-permeable membranes, while the surrounding waters provide infrastructure, cooling, and some mixing from wave action.

Deployed in the marine environment, the gradient between the freshwater inside the system and the saltwater outside drives forward osmosis, cleaning the water as it is released into the surrounding environment. In addition, this process concentrates nutrients in the algae medium to stimulate growth and concentrates the algae to facilitate harvesting. The system is ideal for nutrient-rich domestic wastewater environments. Harvested algae can be used to make biofuels, fertilizer, animal food, and other products


  • Expanded use of protected bays for biomass production
  • Doesn’t compete with agricultural land use
  • Advanced wastewater treatment
  • Captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere


  • Diesel fuel production
  • Lipid-based chemical production
  • High-value products (e.g., cosmetics, nutraceuticals, food additives)
  • Fertilizer and animal food products
  • Advanced sewage treatment
  • Pharmaceutical products
  • Renewable energy

Electric cars charging

Supercapacitors with High Energy Density

Graphene composite materials for supercapacitor electrodes

Supercapacitors have received intense interest as an alternative to traditional energy storage devices in recent years. Applications for supercapacitors range from plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to backup power sources. However, while the power density of supercapacitors surpasses that of batteries, commercially available batteries have a significantly higher specific energy density. This innovation develops electrode composite materials that combine graphene with a metal oxide nanocomposite of manganese oxide and cobalt oxide. It comprises a scalable, integrated materials synthesis and device fabrication process to optimize specific capacitance and cycling lifetime and device reliability. Both the energy density and the power density of the materials are exceptionally high.


  • Enables a scalable, low-cost fabrication scheme
  • Increased energy density and power density
  • Optimizes cycle life and reliability
  • Lower cost than a traditional battery


  • Electric vehicle power sources
  • Sustainable and renewable energy markets
  • Energy and environmental design


Computer-generated terrain map

High-Resolution Terrain Information Algorithms

Software for aeronautics collision avoidance and a range of research areas

These data-adaptive algorithms provide an extensive and highly efficient encoding process for global-scale digital terrain maps along with a real-time decoding process to locally render map data. The software is efficient and powerful, with a capability to integrate more than 250 billion separate pieces of terrain information into a single terrain map, and the resulting imagery is a thousand times more detailed than that provided by current aircraft mapping systems.

Users can easily integrate the algorithms into an aircraft’s existing onboard computing environment or into an electronic flight bag or mobile device application. In addition to its use within next-generation collision avoidance systems, the software can be adapted for use in a wide variety of applications, including aerospace satellites, automobiles, scientific research, marine charting systems, video games, and medical device software.


  • Collision avoidance
  • Aerial firefighting
  • Crop dusting
  • Unmanned aerial vehicle navigation and research
  • Automotive GPS
  • Medical software
  • Gaming systems


  • Provides very high encoding process ratios
  • Highly configurable
  • Works on portable platforms
  • Affordable and accessible

Medical equipment, Robotic arm and Fiber optic cables

Real-Time 3D Shape Rendering

Ultrafast algorithms enable smart structures with unparalleled self-monitoring capabilities

Researchers at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center have developed an innovative method for rendering the bending shape of an optical fiber cable in real time. Unlike current methods used to calculate shape rendering, which are complex and time-intensive and which may have lag time, this technology’s streamlined algorithms require no post-processing. Armstrong’s system scans at a rate of 100 times per second, providing instantaneous 3D shape rendering. The sensors, along with NASA’s sophisticated algorithms, can be used to calculate a variety of critical parameters including shape, stress, temperature, pressure, strength, and operational load. The sensing system can be used for aerospace, civil structures, oil and gas drilling, renewable energy, and much more.


  • Unparalleled speed that permits real-time monitoring with no lag
  • No post-processing required
  • Small size and light weight


  • Endoscopes, catheters, and robotic surgery
  • Oil and gas drilling and exploration
  • Structural monitoring for aircraft, wind turbines, and automobiles
  • Position control of robotic arms and tools


Firefighters putting out a car fire

Portable and Compact Aerosol Sensor

An early-warning fire detector and monitor for health and safety hazards

Multiple market sectors could take advantage of a new compact and versatile aerosol sensor for measuring, characterizing, and monitoring atmospheric particulates. Originally developed for early-warning fire detection on the International Space Station, the sensor is useful in confined, high-risk environments, such as submarines, aircraft, and factories, where a fast and informed response can save lives. The device can also be configured to be worn as a personal monitor, enabling first responders, firefighters, hazardous material personnel, and other public safety officials to manage their exposure to hazardous breathing conditions. Lightweight and compact, the sensors can also be networked together at low cost to monitor large aerosol clouds and provide critical health and respiratory information for widespread disaster assessment and monitoring.


  • Accurate results over a large range of aerosol parameters
  • Sensors can be networked
  • Compact (roughly the size of a deck of cards)
  • High level of sensitivity
  • Reduces the occurrence of false alarms in fire detection
  • Can be used in harsh, confined, or remote field applications
  • Low power consumption


  • Early fire detection
  • Respiratory health monitoring
  • Environmental monitoring
  • Pollution monitoring
  • Emissions control
  • Homeland security

Oil pumping operationInset: Mining operation

Shape Memory Alloy Rock Splitters

Provides a compact, powerful, non-explosive method for fracturing rocklike materials

A groundbreaking method uses shape memory alloys (SMAs) to split apart rock formations without the need for explosives or hydraulics. Conventional approaches present difficulties in transportation and operation and can badly damage underlying samples during use. Glenn’s innovation exploits cutting-edge SMA compositions to deliver controllable stresses in excess of 1500 megapascals, which is up to four times greater than the force exerted by commercial SMAs. The SMA compositions are also tunable to multiple activation temperatures up to 750 °F, depending on the usage environments. Glenn’s Shape Memory Alloy Rock Splitter device generates this power without any demolition damage to the surrounding environment, and in a package that combines reliability, ease of setup and activation, and cost-effectiveness. This technology could prove invaluable to enterprises as varied as oil drilling, mining, civil engineering, fossil collection, and search-and-rescue operations—any field that requires compact but large static forces.


  • Stresses are four to five times more powerful than similar alloys
  • Causes no demolition or vibration damage to surrounding environment
  • Convenient setup and activation
  • Simple and safe, requiring only heat to activate
  • Compact, small volume, and extremely low weight
  • Useful in spaces that heavy equipment cannot access
  • Reusable


  • Oil drilling and offshore exploration
  • Hydraulic fracturing
  • Gemstone and precious metal mining
  • Civil engineering
  • Archaeological digs
  • Commercial space


Volcano seen from International Space Station

Miniaturized Laser Heterodyne Radiometer

A novel and compact system for measuring greenhouse gases in the environment

Goddard Space Flight Center has developed a passive monitor for measuring greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon monoxide. Further, trace gas concentrations can be correlated with altitude, providing further delineation of composition. This is an autonomous instrument with a uniquely small footprint—it’s about the size of carry-on luggage. This instrument uses a variation of laser heterodyne radiometer (LHR) to measure the concentration of trace gases in the atmosphere by measuring their absorption of infrared sunlight.


  • Small size (carry-on luggage-sized)
  • Can correlate trace concentrations with altitude



  • Environmental monitoring
  • Meteorology
  • Gas line monitoring for methane


Gear Bearings

Increased capacity and performance with reduced size, weight, and cost

This potentially revolutionary gear bearing technology represents a mechanical architecture breakthrough: it combines gear and bearing functions into a single unit that significantly improves gear drives across the board for electrical, internal combustion, and turbine motors. Because it combines gear and bearing functions, it reduces weight, number of parts, size, and cost, while also increasing load capacity and performance. The technology is compatible with most gear types, including spur, helical, elliptical, and bevel gears. By selecting the appropriate manufacturing method and materials, gear bearings can be tailored to benefit any application, from toys to aircraft.


  • Zero backlash results in smoother operation and
    superior control
  • Improved thrust bearing
  • Unprecedented speed reduction
  • Less noise and vibration
  • Fewer fatigue failures
  • Low cost, simple design
  • Can be applied to many types of motions including linear, rotary, or motion hybrids
  • Enables all-electric actuator systems, eliminating hydraulics in many applications



  • Transportation, including automotive, aircraft, marine, and rail
  • Power tools, automotive tools, and garden equipment
  • Industrial machinery
  • Farm equipment
  • Robots, cars, and motorized toys


Water bottle manufacturing

Automated Scheduling and Planning Environment

Artificial intelligence powers framework for scheduling and planning applications

Automated planning and scheduling technologies have great promise in reducing operations costs and increasing the autonomy of systems in aerospace and other industries. Based on artificial intelligence techniques, the Automated Scheduling and Planning Environment (ASPEN) is a modular, reconfigurable application framework capable of supporting a wide variety of planning and scheduling applications. ASPEN provides a set of reusable software components that implement the elements commonly found in complex planning and scheduling systems, including an expressive modeling language, a resource management system, a temporal reasoning system, and a graphical interface.


  • Modeling language requires no user knowledge in the areas of computer programming, planning, or scheduling
  • Generic architecture allows users to choose from several search engines and propagation algorithms to optimize the planning process
  • Allows re-planning during plan execution, enabling continuous real-time planning for embedded applications
  • Plans can be optimized for a specific set of goals, such as maximizing science data or minimizing power consumption



  • Make-to-order manufacturing
  • Capital-intensive production with constrained plant capacity
  • Production in facilities where many different products are manufactured
  • Products requiring a high number of components or tasks
  • Production requiring frequent, unpredictable schedule changes

Demolition siteInset: Ultrasonic drill

Ultrasonic, Percussive Drill

Drilling with low power, low noise

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have developed the technology for drills that operate in the ultrasonic range and incorporate an augmenter that puts the drilling capacity of large, heavy rotary drills into smaller, rotary hammering drills. These drills require low torque power and, by operating at ultrasonic frequencies, reduce noise. They are based on technology developed to enable sampling in low-gravity and extreme environments.

Generally, hammering fractures media, while rotation of fluted bits removes cuttings. To benefit from these two actions, a novel configuration of the percussive mechanism was developed to produce an augmenter of rotary drills. The drills are driven by piezoelectric-actuated percussive mechanisms that can be operated using low average power. They were demonstrated to penetrate rocks as hard as basalt, and one design was made as light as 400 grams. Piezoelectric actuators have only two moving parts and no gears or motors. The drill can be adapted easily to operations in an extreme range of temperatures.


  • Noise reduction
  • Low average power requirement
  • Compact and lightweight



  • Construction industry
  • Shallow mining
  • Demolition
  • Medical applications, such as extracting pacemaker leads, drilling bone, and ablating gallbladder and kidney stones

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CPR demonstration

Robonaut 2: Medical Opportunities

The future of robotics and medical care

Researchers at Johnson Space Center, in collaboration with General Motors and Oceaneering, have designed a state-of-the-art, highly dexterous, humanoid robot: Robonaut 2 (R2). R2 is made up of multiple component technologies and systems making up nearly 50 patented and patent pending technologies with the potential to be game-changers in multiple industries including the medical industry. R2 technologies can aid in a variety of medical applications, ranging from telemedicine to handling the logistics of medical procedures. These activities can be done in autonomous mode or in teleoperation mode, where the robot is controlled by a technician or physician. This type of operation would be advantageous during situations where a biomedical hazard poses risks to humans, such as a contagious outbreak or a combat situation. For more routine daily use, R2 could function as an assistant to hospital staff.


  • Can be controlled by direct teleoperations
  • Safe for working side-by-side with humans
  • Multiple cameras provide stereo vision and depth perception
  • Dexterous hands can use many of the tools created for human us


  • Telemedicine
  • Surgical robotics
  • Home medical service robotics
  • Medical rehabilitation
  • Hospital service robotics

Space Shuttle Discovery

Improved Infrared Contrast Analysis and Imaging

Nondestructive evaluation of advanced nonmetallic structural composites

Novel techniques for post-processing flash infrared thermography data, developed at Johnson Space Center, provide numerous enhancements to nondestructive evaluation (NDE) of structures for a myriad of applications. Compatible with commercial infrared thermography products, this suite of tools provides both quantitative and qualitative data analysis capabilities and reliable detection and characterization of anomalies in composite structures. Calibration techniques provide detailed, systematic analysis of flash thermography data comparable to that used in advanced pulse-echo ultrasonic testing, offering accuracy not currently available for NDE of composite materials.


  • Comprehensive, efficient, and cost-effective
  • Precise characterization of flaws in nonmetallic composites
  • Compatible with existing flash thermography hardware systems
  • Improves signal-to-noise ratio and flaw detection sensitivity
  • Extracts and constructs images automatically, quickly, and simply


  • Aircraft and fuselage structures, airfoils, and turbine blades
  • Turbine blades and pipelines for power generation
  • Chemical and petrochemical pipelines and fuel tanks
  • Marine vehicle bodies, fuel tanks, pressure vessels
  • High-performace automotive bodies and structures
  • Bridges



Self-Healing Wire Insulation

Microcapsules release healant that repairs minor cuts, nicks, and abrasions

A new high-performance, flexible, low-melt polyimide film gives wire coatings self-healing properties. When a wire is damaged, microcapsules release a soluble polyimide that dissolves and heals the damaged area. Aerospace and ground vehicles often contain miles of high-performance electrical wire insulation that is prone to damage from abrasion and cuts during vehicle operation and maintenance. Large portions of this wire are often buried within the vehicle framework, making it very difficult and time-consuming to locate and repair damage. Incorporation of a self-healing capability in the insulation of this wire would provide self-repair of minor nicks, cuts, and abrasions without intervention and help reduce the danger of electrical shorts that can lead to sparking and fires.


  • Reduces maintenance requirements for wiring
  • Can greatly reduce the cost of materials and labor required for the repairs
  • Helps prevent shorts, increasing safety


  • Aerospace, including aircraft, helicopters, and rockets
  • Missiles, ground vehicles, ships, submarines, and unmanned aerial vehicles
  • Automotive wiring

NASA launch pad

Autonomous Flight Termination System

Redundant systems to autonomously make flight termination or destruct decisions

The Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) is a joint NASA, U.S. Air Force, and DARPA project to develop an autonomous range safety system aboard a launch vehicle that can augment or replace the functions of the traditional human-in-the-loop system. Redundant AFTS processors evaluate data from onboard navigation sensors such as GPS and inertial measurement unit navigation sensors, and configurable rule-based algorithms are used to make flight termination decisions. The mission rules are developed by the local range safety authorities using the inventory of rule types taken from current human-in-the-loop operational flight safety practices.

NASA is making this reference design hardware, software, and technical package available as a royalty-free technology transfer to other U.S. Government agencies and ITAR-qualified companies.


  • Reduces the need for ground-based assets
  • Global coverage—vehicle does not have to be launched from a range
  • Multiple vehicles (such as fly-back boosters) can be launched and tracked at the same time
  • Increases responsiveness


  • Government space missions
  • Commercial space missions


Compact long-reach robotic arm

Compact Long-Reach Robotic Arm

Lightweight and compact arm with long reach and wide range of motion

Langley Research Center is developing a robotic arm with lightweight joints that provide a wide range of motion. The envisioned design provides users with a long reach and numerous degrees of freedom. Ideal for use in aquatic environments or for manipulation of light terrestrial loads, the arm consists of articulating booms connected by antagonistic cable tension elements. The arm elements are structurally efficient and lightweight and support compact packaging. The inherent mechanical advantage provided by the tendon articulation allows the use of small, efficient motor systems. The manipulator can be scaled over a large range, from 10 to more than 1,000 meters. Current efforts are focusing on a 15-meter prototype and a 300-meter subsystem to test the unique robotic architecture. NASA is seeking partners to assist with the development of its concept system for specific applications.


  • Provides a long reach for remote inspection or manipulation
    in inhospitable environments
  • Tension stiffening improves structural efficiency
  • Requires minimal storage space when packaged and is
    easily transported
  • Design can be highly customized
  • Capability to actively change component geometry during operation (e.g., extending or relocating links and spreader arms)



  • Ship-to-harbor, harbor-to-ship, and ship-to-ship docking
  • Retractable covers and awnings
  • Camera booms for filming operations
  • Floating barrier deployment and maneuvering
  • Subsea cable inspection and placement
  • Space operations

Electric field

Electric Field Imaging System

Low-cost, noncontact imaging through electrical properties

NASA’s Electric Field Imaging (EFI) system is the only noncontact method capable of quantitatively measuring the magnitude and direction of electrostatic fields in near- and far-field applications. Based on low-cost, commercially available components, the EFI system uses measurement of very low-current, human-safe electric fields to construct a 3D image of objects and people based on their dielectric properties. This platform technology, originally developed for measurement of the efficacy of electrical shielding around cables, could be optimized for a variety of applications, and it has the potential to offer a lower-cost, portable, and safer alternative to image systems currently in use.


  • Can be optimized for localized or remote applications
  • Shows potential for high-resolution imaging (tens of microns or better resolution for centimeter-scale to millimeter-scale objects)
  • Displays potential for near real-time imaging with gigahertz data sampling rates
  • Does not require exposure to radiation, magnetic fields, heat, or light
  • Demonstrates potential for low-cost, portable construction
  • Can distinguish between nonconductive materials with high precision (potential capability to detect a 0.01 percent change in dielectric properties between measurements)
  • Has easy-to-use, point-and-scan workflow design



  • Remote, noncontact respiratory and vascular system monitoring
  • Brain imaging, cancer detection, and cardiac polarization wave imaging
  • Nondestructive evaluation of composites, insulators, and electrical shielding
  • Homeland security baggage and personnel screening
  • Crime scene forensic evaluation
  • Lightning strike detection and prediction


Ignition electrical switch

High-Power Pulsed Electrical Switch

Mercury-free ignitron for fast switching under high voltage and current

Ignitron electrical switches have traditionally been used in a number of industrial applications in which the high-speed switching of electrical current under high voltage is needed. Today, many of these applications are served by solid-state, semiconductor-type switches, in part due to the toxicity of the mercury used in ignitrons and the lack of suitable alternative designs. On the whole, however, ignitrons can offer much greater durability and reliability over solid-state switch designs, and can handle even higher speeds and higher voltages. NASA scientists have developed a novel ignitron design that uses nontoxic gallium and gallium alloys. The design circumvents plating problems typically experienced with these metals that could lead to short-circuit reliability and durability problems. The result of the NASA innovation is an electrical switch that is ideally suited to the ultrafast switching of high currents under very high voltages.


  • Operates at very high switching speed and high current while withstanding extremely high voltages
  • High reliability and durability and can be readily serviced or disposed
  • Nontoxic and environmentally friendly


  • Circuit protection systems in the electric power grid
  • High-power and pulsed-power military applications
  • Materials processing

Power lines

Variable-Power Handheld Laser Torch

Accurate, portable tool for joining processes

Marshall Space Flight Center developed the handheld laser torch, designed for welding and brazing metals, to repair hard-to-reach Space Shuttle engine nozzles. It incorporates various manual controls and changing lenses to allow the operator to adjust the laser’s power output in real time. The controls and lenses are designed to increase precision, portability, and maneuverability as compared to existing automated lasers and traditional welding techniques such as tungsten inert gas, metal inert gas, or gas-tungsten arc welding systems. Variable lenses allow the user to adjust power in real time, depending on circumstantial welding needs, while proximity sensors with automated shut-off switches also ensure a high level of safety for the user.


  • Enhanced accuracy
  • Increased portability and maneuverability
  • Improved user safety via added sensors and emergency switches
  • Decreased heat-affected zone, preventing damage to the welding surface


  • Aerospace engine repair
  • Medical hardware manufacturing
  • Plastic mold and die restoration
  • Jewelry manufacturing and repair
  • Eyeglass frame welding


Industrial piping

Cryogenic Butterfly Cam Valve

No-leak valve performs in broad range of temperatures

The main disadvantage of currently available butterfly valves is that more energy can’t be added to reduce leakage, as with globe valves. The disc has to create a tight seal with the seat around it exactly when the disc hits 90 degrees. If additional torque is added, the disc will just rotate past 90 degrees, and the valve will open again, allowing fluid or gas to flow through the valve. Typical butterfly valves also fail leakage tests in liquid nitrogen.

The Cryogenic Butterfly Cam Valve design allows additional rotation of the shaft so the disc can slide toward the valve body until it seals tightly. This high-performance design enables a bubble-tight seal at both ambient and cryogenic temperatures, allowing it to prevent leakage no matter how drastic the dimensional changes are due to changing temperatures.


  • Improves performance over a wide range of temperatures
  • Disc can rotate and translate
  • Holds a bubble-tight seal regardless of dimensional changes due to changing temperatures
  • Zero leakage
  • Simple design with larger machining tolerances


  • Aerospace industry
  • Liquefied natural gas industries
  • Air-gas separation industries
  • Cryogenic plants
  • Food hydrogenation

Forest fire

Forest and Vegetation Tracking System

Advance warning of risks for public authorities and land managers

Stennis Space Center is offering a powerful suite of software tools that have a proven track record in processing and analyzing satellite data to create maps detailing risks and damage to forests, agricultural crops, and grazing land. The software can be used to detect, identify, and track a variety of disturbances, such as damage from river flooding, severe hurricanes, drought, wildfires, wind, ice, hail, and frost. It can also track defoliation and mortality caused by insect pests or disease. This can be a useful tool for public authorities; land managers, whether forest rangers or farmers, for whom it can provide an early-warning system; and for university and government researchers.


  • Observation of patterns difficult or impossible to see from the ground
  • Capable of near real-time monitoring
  • Ability to rapidly identify and interpret risks and threats
  • Cost and time savings for land managers
  • Ability to create and share custom maps


  • Forest monitoring and management
  • Agricultural management
  • Grazing rangeland management
  • Academic and scientific research


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