Astronaut Stephen K Robinson on the International Space Station's Canadarm?2 on 3�August 2005

Space tech's terrestrial spin-offs

Between them, Nasa, Esa and Roscosmos have taken us to the moon, Mars and beyond - but what have they ever done for us here on Earth?

Look up. Somewhere just beyond the atmosphere, a giant but slender robotic arm may be giving you a wave.

Canadarm2 is the dexterous extension of the International Space Station (ISS). Built in Canada, since 2001 it has been giving humans in orbit a helping hand, moving supplies and payloads around the ISS and supporting astronauts during risky spacewalks.

Once, it also removed a cancerous growth from a young woman's head.

Well, indirectly. When Paige Nickason was admitted into the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, Canada, with a complex brain tumour, her surgeon was extremely precise, meticulous and cool: inhumanely so. It was a robot - or rather, two robotic arms, dubbed NeuroArm, remotely guided by a skilled surgeon. As dexterous as the human hand, but steadier and more accurate, the robot mimicked every move of a human doctor's hands, who was at the controls in a neighbouring room. It transmitted to the surgeon not only 3D visuals of the inside of the brain, but with the help of built-in force sensors, also the haptic sensation of touch.

The operation on Nickason was the first ever image-guided neurosurgical procedure performed using a robot. Since then, the machine has helped many more patients; the aim now is to get its upgraded version into hospitals around North America.

But the twist here is that NeuroArm is Canadarm2s little terrestrial cousin: inspired by it and designed by the same company, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA). Failure in space is out of the question, so replicating the incredible precision of space technology was vital back on Earth when it came to fiddling with a human brain. "Canadarm2 was intended to reach into the [space shuttle] cargo bay and deploy [with extreme precision] a large city-bus type object that weighs tens of thousands of kilogrammes. The whole notion of safety was very important," says Pierre Jean, the Canadian Space Agency's (CSA) director of space exploration.

Could NeuroArm have been built if Canadarm never existed? Perhaps, says Garnette Sutherland, neurosurgeon at the University of Calgary in Canada, who worked with MDA to build the medical device. And adds: "But it would have taken much longer".

NeuroArm is just one of many examples of space technology spinoffs. Contrary to the popular belief, neither Velcro nor Teflon are on that list. What is, though, is a suitcase-sized device called Finder that helped rescue four men trapped in the wreckage of a collapsed textile factory four days after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal in April, by spotting their heartbeats. The device is a spinoff of the agency's remote sensing technology, developed for space exploration in our quest for signs of life.

Late last year, the world watched in awe when the brave little Rosetta craft, after a decade of travelling through space, managed not only to catch up with comet 67P but lower its Philae lander onto it. One of the lander's aims was to sniff out organic compounds on the comet, and compare them with those on Earth. Fast-forward to today, and one curious Earth application of the mission is a portable bed-bug detector called Apollo that senses the chemical signals the tiny critters send to each other to attract mates.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) describes 'spinoffs' as commercially available systems, processes or services that include Nasa-originating technology or technical assistance. Both Nasa and the European Space Agency (Esa) have special 'technology transfer' programmes that help to repurpose space tech. Annually, Nasa says, it develops more than 1,600 new technologies and transfers thousands of products, services, and processes that help businesses generate revenue and create jobs.

Spinoffs usually appear after a particular technology has been sent to space. "We've seen our technologies show up in acne treatments, underwear, perfumes and even as the advanced algorithms behind popular online dating services," says Daniel Lockney of Nasa's Technology Transfer Programme.

But occasionally, the interests of space professionals and those developing technologies on the ground align. "Sometimes we know when we start that certain technologies will have obvious secondary applications, such as the work we do in energy production and storage, life support and telemedicine, or the work we do in aeronautics, making airplanes and the nation's airspace safer and more efficient," says Lockney. "We [then may] partner with another agency, a company, a university to cooperatively develop a technology."

Bullet in the brain

It all began with the space race. Rather, that's what it was for politicians; for scientists, it was a race to innovate.

In 1958, US President Dwight D Eisenhower signed the Space Act, officially creating Nasa, in response to the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite. The act included a special provision: that the agency's research and advancements should benefit everyone, on and off the planet.

Three years later, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. And seven years after that, it all helped a US medical team that had to treat a man with a bullet in his brain.

It was 1968, and Joseph Barrios had been shot in the head. Instead of opening his skull straight away to remove the firmly lodged bullet, surgeons resorted to an unconventional approach: spinning him in a centrifuge capsule used to train astronauts, in an attempt to reposition the bullet to a less critical area of the brain. Barrios was accelerated to six times the force of gravity for five seconds - and it worked.

More broadly useful Nasa spinoff applications followed, from communications, navigation and food packaging to geology, fire fighting, oceanography, public safety, transportation and weather prediction. In another medical case, doctors used Nasa space helmets on children with heart defects to study their oxygen consumption. It was an easier way to analyse the mix of fresh air circulated through the helmet and the exhaled breath, rather than using a standard rubber mouthpiece to collect exhaled air.

In 1973, in the midst of the Cold War, Nasa presented its first 'Technology Utilization Program Report' to show the extension of the space race on Earth. Three years later, the report morphed into an annual brochure called 'Spinoff' that featured about 50 such repurposed technologies each year and was distributed free to the press, universities, inventors and the public at large. Back then, as now, Nasa had to demonstrate to taxpayers that it was delivering value for money. Today, more than 1,800 products are listed in the Spinoff database, dating back to 1976. In total, Nasa says, more than 30,000 commercial applications of space technology have appeared on the consumer market since the 1950s - returning to the economy at least three times what the agency spends on its space programme.

The Soviet space programme generated spinoff technologies too, though nowhere near to the same degree as Nasa. For example, the Soviets prided themselves on being the first to test a plane that was powered just like rockets with cryogenic fuel - first with liquid hydrogen, and later with liquified natural gas. Developers of Tupolev Tu-155, which flew from 1988 till the fall of the USSR, used their space programme experience to safely handle liquid hydrogen, vacuum conditions and new materials to create the plane.

Europe also got in on the act. In the 1980s, Esa sponsored the design of a simulation tool, not only for its own space-related work but also for other industries. As a result, the Esa Simulation Language (ESL) is still used today to design offshore natural gas production facilities in the North Sea. The software simulates the gas flow and capacity in controlled conditions, and is also used to train engineers who operate oil platforms.

Esa's Technology Transfer Programme Office has Business Incubation Centres around Europe, aimed at turning space tech and ideas into commercial companies.

From stars to ears

But there's more. Are you a camper or a marathon runner? The well-known 'space blankets' made of a layer of polypropylene film with vapour-deposited aluminium that are designed to protect you from hypothermia were developed by Nasa as insulation and radiation barriers for spacesuits and spacecraft instruments.

Perhaps you like to snooze on a memory-foam pillow? The foam was made in 1966, by Nasa's Ames Research Centre, to improve the safety of aircraft cushions.

And the thermometer the doctor sticks into your ear uses infrared technology to measure the thermal radiation emitted by the eardrum. Astronomers use the same method to measure the temperature of stars.

Nuclear reactor technicians, race car drivers, people with multiple sclerosis and anyone else who happens to be in an environment where it is difficult to stay cool can benefit from 'cool vests', a technology derived from the Cooling Suit developed for the Apollo missions. Worn underneath the spacesuit, the garment contained tubing to circulate water to keep astronauts cool and comfortable during spacewalks on the moon.

These spinoffs appeared after the tech they were based on had been tried and tested in space - and one aspect that made the original inventions appealing is the emphasis on reliability, says Henrik Christensen, a roboticist at Georgia Tech University. "When we build ground-based systems, failure is acceptable, but when you design for space, it's not an option. We can't afford to have somebody float off the ISS, and we can't afford to send a robot to Mars and crash into the surface."

Foreseeing tech transfer

But, says Lockney, sometimes when Nasa researchers are working on a new material, sensors or instruments, they know that the technology will have many potential applications. "Our advanced materials can be lighter, more malleable, stronger, burn at higher temperatures, and so on," he says. "But we need to research and investigate whose problems, in addition to ours, they will solve." In these instances, Nasa reaches out to potential users and tries to transfer the technology to those it thinks could benefit.

Take the recent work done to design the Space Launch System, Nasa's new heavy-lift rocket for future manned missions to visit an asteroid and maybe even Mars. One initial design challenge for the engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama was a 'heavy shake' during take-off, which could be catastrophic for the crew. The team developed a system that uses the natural slosh of the liquid rocket fuel as a stabilising force - and that sparked an idea. "We quickly realised that the ability to use a relatively small liquid mass to control the vibration of tall structures could have applications in a wide number of areas, particularly in earthquake-proofing towers and skyscrapers," says Lockney. "We've reached out to architecture firms and building designers, and we expect to see it take root and become the standard."

Medicine is another obvious area for technology transfer. For instance, the devices that monitor the health of astronauts in space can also monitor hospital patients in intensive care units.

Last year, a mechanical member of the ISS crew, the Robonaut 2 designed by Nasa and General Motors, received a set of legs. The dexterous machine can be hooked to surfaces to perform simple tasks, such as holding tools for the crew; in future it may move around on its own.

It didn't take long for a spinoff to appear. In collaboration with the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, Nasa is currently developing an exoskeleton dubbed X1 that could be worn to either assist or inhibit movement in leg joints. It can be an exercise device for astronauts on the ISS and during future space missions, and give them extra power on the surface of a planet or asteroid. On Earth, meanwhile, it could assist people whose legs are paralysed.

Ideas in abundance

Robotics, however, is where ideas for applications are usually in abundance. Before the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, two other machines, Spirit and Opportunity, roamed the Red Planet, powered by electric engines. With Opportunity still going strong after a decade, scientists have proof that their electrical motors work in a harsh environment, says Frank Salzgeber, head of technology transfer at Esa. Soon, he adds, similar engines may be used to make cars more reliable in hot and dusty Saudi Arabia and during frigid Siberian winters.

The semi-autonomous technologies on Martian rovers may also be of use for self-driving cars, says Christensen. He also sees applications for precise procedures such as directing a robot descending into the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor. "If you had to use a control, you would get tired very very quickly," he says. But a 'smart' rover able to follow a programme autonomously and precisely just as Curiosity does on Mars would make work in a disaster or recovery area much easier.

Curiosity has already been of help on Earth. Nasa and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company are testing a handheld leak detector for pipelines based on the laser technology used to seek methane on Mars.

These are just a few examples; would they have appeared if there were no space programmes? Lockney doesn't think so. Take the heart pump that Nasa helped develop a few years ago, using its supercomputers and concepts for miniaturising components for the space shuttle's main engines. It's since been implanted in nearly 1,000 people.

"Did the medical community need a spacecraft built first before this technology could be invented? Probably not. But our knowledge honed during the design and development of that complex vehicle led to us having some of the sharpest minds in the world, some of the most advanced computers and test facilities, and an amazing portfolio of advanced technology. It's our responsibility to make sure that these assets come back down to Earth in the form of practical everyday benefits.''

Image credits: Nasa, Science Photo Library, NeuroArm, Getty Images

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