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5 Ways NASA Technology is Shaping the Transportation of Tomorrow

5 Ways NASA Technology is Shaping the Transportation of Tomorrow

We have always been in the transportation business, whether launching astronauts to the Moon or improving airplanes to make them fly faster and safer on less fuel. And whether directly – like more aerodynamic wings for passenger jets – or indirectly – like more comfortable driver seats in sedans – this is yet another way our innovations benefit the public.

Today, the world of transportation is on the brink of some big changes. Drones are poised to make more efficient deliveries, crop surveillance and even disaster relief efforts. Taxis may soon take to the skies as well. And self-driving cars are ever closer to reality.

As we release our latest edition of NASA Spinoff, our yearly publication that celebrates the many ways our technology helps people on Earth, let’s take a closer look at some ways we’re helping augment transportation — and keeping everyone on the roads and in the skies safe.

1. Better data for driverless navigation

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If cars are going to drive themselves, they need to be able to “see” and assess the world around them, from other cars to pedestrians and bicyclists to a construction cone in the road. This is accomplished with the help of 3D cameras, or light detection and ranging (lidar), which sends out laser pulses and calculates where obstacles are by how long it takes that laser to bounce back.

But that, says engineer Farzin Amzajerdian at our Langley Research Center, is like building a 3D picture one pixel at a time. Instead, a new kind of lidar grabs a full array of pixels all at once. This “flash lidar” is faster and, because it has fewer moving parts, more reliable. It sailed through initial tests for possible use on a future Moon lander, and our partner has also sold the technology to a major car parts manufacturer, for autonomous cars. 

2. Opening the airspace for drones

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Air traffic control has largely been a human operation so far, with people in control towers actively directing all 50,000 or so flights daily across the United States. But add in drones, and humans won’t be able to keep up: experts estimate there will soon be millions of aircraft in flight every day.

We’re helping automate and streamline flight control, working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and private companies to build the new technology needed to manage the anticipated challenges. Among other advances as a result, one company has built a platform used at airports, by air traffic controllers, and by drone operators around the world to more easily file flight plans, view the airspace, get clearance in restricted areas and more.

3. Software modeling for air taxis

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It may sound like something from the Jetsons, but real people are imagining the technology needed to make flying taxis a thing. And they’re probably not going to look anything like the passenger planes that we’re used to.

But when you start with a totally new design, there are all sorts of variables, including how much it will weigh. When it comes to flying, weight is a critical factor. For one thing, a heavier craft needs more fuel, but more fuel makes it even heavier. And all that weight stresses the structure, which means reinforcing it (more weight again!). Do it wrong, and all these factors cycle endlessly until you have something too heavy to get off the ground.

New software, designed with our help, generates fast and accurate weight estimates of novel aircraft designs, helping engineers figure out what works and how to make it better. Among other customers? UberElevate, which is trying to take rideshares to the skies.

4. More nimble hand controls

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We’ve even played a part in improving different kinds of joysticks, for everything from planes and video games, over the years. We had to because—especially in the early days of space travel—spacesuits were pretty unwieldy under the high g forces of launch and re-entry, so we needed to develop easy-to-use hand controls.

One former astronaut, Scott Parazynski, had acquired a wealth of experience training on and using NASA joysticks for jobs like maneuvering the International Space Station’s robotic arm. He realized similar technology could have even more of an impact on Earth. Parazynski, who is also a medical doctor, envisions improving robotic surgery with the new joystick he created; in the meantime, it’s already on the market for drones, making it easier than ever to use them to record aerial video, inspect a gas pipeline or even assess damage after a hurricane.

5. Helping farmers get the full picture

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The “bird’s-eye view” is an expression for a reason: flying overhead provides a perspective you just can’t get with two feet planted on the ground. For the first time ever, we are going to get that bird’s eye view on Mars, and the same expertise that got us there is also giving farmers a new way to keep track of their crops.

The Mars Helicopter is poised to hitch a ride to the Red Planet with our latest rover, Perseverance, later this year. Designing it was a challenge: because there is so little air to provide lift on Mars, we needed something incredibly light (less than four pounds!) with large rotors that spin incredibly fast (nearly 3,000 times per minute).

We teamed up with a company we’ve worked with in the past on high-altitude, solar-powered, unmanned flyers. That company had something else in the works, using the same expertise: a drone equipped with two high-res cameras to capture images of crops as it flies overhead. The data from these images tells farmers where plants are thriving and where they’re not, informing them where they might need more (or less) water or fertilizer.

You can learn more about all these innovations, and dozens more, in the 2020 edition of NASA Spinoff. Read it online or request a limited quantity print copy and we’ll mail it to you!

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