Different ways the NASA's tech innovations for space are serving life on Earth

NASA showcases how its technologies are useful to live on Earth as we know it, in an annual volume called Spinoff. In the 2017 version of the catalog, NASA displayed a series of technologies that have been brought about by NASA research for Earthly purposes.

The books have been released every year since 1996. They include an array of seemingly random technologies that NASA has engineered through its six-decade-long mission to understand and explore the Earth, the solar system, and the universe. They range from self-driving tractors that use advanced GPS tracking to harvest food to CMOS sensors used in action cameras, to cooling pipes for use in brain surgery.

Stephen Jurczyk, the associate administrator of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington said, the stories published in Spinoff represent the end of a technology transfer pipeline that begins when researchers and engineers at NASA develop innovations to meet mission needs. They are innovations that make people more productive, protect the environment, and much more.

If you've ever wondered how the space race helps the human race directly, here are ten selected uses of NASA technologies on Earth that might offer an answer.

Self-driving tractors

A partnership between John Deere and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has resulted in significant savings for farmers who use automated tractors for agriculture. While the world is seeing the first fully automated vehicles on the roads, agricultural fields, where regulations are laxer, have been plowed, turned, and harvested by automated vehicles for over ten years.

Over this period, the accuracy of GPS was improved from 30 feet to an inch. The tractors are used for planting feeds, distributing fertilizer, spraying pesticides, and harvesting the crop.

The increasing accuracy meant that there was less overlap in the areas automatically covered, resulting in significant savings to the farmers. The automated tractors can take into account inputs from local moisture sensors on the field and combine it with the GPS data for a process known as Yield Mapping, which informs the farmers how much of their harvests come from which part of the field. John Deere has weaned itself off NASA to guide its tractors and uses its own systems now.


Laser-based archeology


NASA scientists have been using light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology since the early Apollo Moon missions in 1971. A Canadian company called Teledyne Optech was designated to engineer tiny, lightweight LiDAR devices for NASA's use. These devices could detect snow in the atmosphere of Mars. A small bread box-sized LiDAR is aboard the OSIRIS-REx mission, which has landed on asteroid Bennu to explore the asteroid and any clues it can find to the origin of life. In modern-day archaeology, the small, portable LiDAR devices come in extremely useful to peer into the past of the planet without having to dig.

Research teams flew over suspected sites of bison hunting and scanned the ground with LiDAR devices. These gadgets can identify features on the ground and peer through layers of thick vegetation to produce 3-dimensional maps of natural and man-made topography. Archaeologists would then go on foot to corresponding features on the ground and look for signs of pre-historic activity.

Once promising signs were found, scientists move into the dig site, and find remains of bison bones and pre-historic artifacts associated with bison hunting and cooking. The legendary lost settlement of Ciudad Blanca in Honduras was pinpointed using LiDAR. Other than archeology, LiDAR technology is also useful in mapping natural disasters like wildfires and earthquakes to look at how structures on the surface were affected.

Heat pipes for brain surgery

NASA has been using heat pipes to dissipate heat from even its earliest spacecraft. Any satellite that doesn't rotate around its own axis and is facing the Sun much of the time is susceptible to damage from space radiation to its electric components (due to a build-up of heat). Funneling away heat from the exposed part of the satellite, copper tubes run to the back of the spacecraft, protecting the delicate equipment on the inside from damage.

More recently, NASA has been using heat pipes to passively cool fuel cells, which generate heat. Technology developed by NASA partners Thermacore is used by surgeons in open brain surgery.

A working heat pipe requires the use of electronic, bipolar forceps to generate heat. This heat is then used to cauterize (burn a wound of part of the injured tissue with heat to stop bleeding or prevent infection of healthy tissue) the wound. However, any excess heat can damage the perfectly healthy tissue of the brain. Miniature heat pipes on the forceps increase the surgical precision of these surgical instruments, ending in better results from brain surgeries for patients.

Blood warmers are another important medical application of heat pipes. These devices evenly warm blood and not create local hotspots before it is administered to patients. In hospitals and medical institutes, fluid warmers are used to prevent hypothermia in patients.

As the technology is improved and developed further, medical practitioners are finding increasing applications for these heat pipes.

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