Computer engineering students at The University of Alabama in Huntsville have designed a tool that could revolutionize new ways of using electronic devices with just one hand. It’s called a Gauntlet Keyboard, a glove device that functions as a wireless keyboard. Instead of tapping keys on a keyboard, the user simply touches their thumb to points on their fingers assigned a letter or other keyboard function.
Conductive thread carries the commands to a matchbox-sized Printed Circuit Board (PCB) affixed to the back of the glove. The PCB transmits it via Bluetooth, whether it’s a computer, a mobile phone, music synthesizer, video game or military device. Think of the Gauntlet as a touch screen that works by tapping your fingers to your thumb on a gloved hand.
Four senior engineering students at UAH made the glove their senior design project for a computer engineering class led by Dr. B. Earl Wells. The students — Jiake Liu, Stephen Doud, Douglas Kirby and Chris Heath — are now seeking a patent to market the product. The project recently won a $20,000 prize from the Best Buy Innovator Fund, beating hundreds of entries.
“It’s basically a keyboard on your hand,” explained Liu, the principal innovator and a graduate of Grissom High School. “You, by tapping your thumb on each segment of your fingers, type to the screen basically. And you can do a swiping gesture that would erase it.”
Gauntlet is an acronym for Generally Accessible Universal Nomadic Tactile Low-power Electronic Typist. That’s a lengthy description of what essentially is a glove with a beehive of conductive threads running throughout the fingers and palm.
Liu said the inspiration came from his interest in science fiction movies and experience with touch-screen technologies. Once he and his project partners came up with the idea, they did some scientific research on the most frequently used characters on a keyboard. Common keystrokes got the easiest finger-thumb alignments like the fingertips. Less common ones required more hand contortions to make the contacts. Until users memorize the new “key” positions, the characters are sewn into the finger and palm positions of the glove.
The students were assisted in their initial work by Huntsville electronics firm ADTRAN after entering it in the company’s senior design showcase. The company assisted largely with the micro soldering of the PCB parts. Liu said the group has been in contact with a patent lawyer and a specialty glove designer about going commercial with the Gauntlet.
The young designers are excited about the possibilities for the Gauntlet. “There are several applications we can think of right now,” Liu said. “The easy one would be as a keyboard for the consumer market. Also, the medical field for people limited to one hand from a disability. We can also think of military uses, as an entertainment device or used as a musical instrument for digital synthesizing.”
Dr. Emil Jovanov, associate dean for Graduate Education and Research in the UAH College of Engineering, commended the students for their innovation. “It is a perfect example of how you take an original idea, find your niche and complete the whole idea.” Jovanov said the project would be pitched to the Alabama Launch Pad, a competition to help fund and launch business plans.
Electrical engineers at Oregon State University have developed new technology to monitor medical vital signs, with sophisticated sensors so small and cheap they could fit onto a bandage, be manufactured in high volumes, and cost less than a quarter. A patent is being processed for the monitoring system and it’s now ready for clinical trials, researchers say. When commercialized, it could be used as a disposable electronic sensor, with many potential applications due to its powerful performance, small size, and low cost.
Heart monitoring is one obvious candidate, since the system could gather data on some components of an EKG, such as pulse rate and atrial fibrillation. Its ability to measure EEG brain signals could find use in nursing care for patients with dementia, and recordings of physical activity could improve weight loss programs. Measurements of perspiration and temperature could provide data on infection or disease onset. And if you can measure pulse rate and skin responses, why not a lie detector?
“Current technology allows you to measure these body signals using bulky, power-consuming, costly instruments,” said Patrick Chiang, an associate professor in the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “What we’ve enabled is the integration of these large components onto a single microchip, achieving significant improvements in power consumption. We can now make important biomedical measurements more portable, routine, convenient, and affordable than ever before.”
The much higher cost and larger size of conventional body data monitoring precludes many possible uses, Chiang said. Compared to other technologies, the new system-on-a-chip cuts the size, weight, power consumption, and cost by about 10 times. Some of the existing technologies that would compete with this system, such as pedometers currently in use to measure physical activity, cost $100 or more. The new electronics developed at OSU, by comparison, are about the size and thickness of a postage stamp, and could easily just be taped over the heart or at other body locations to measure vital signs.
Part of what enables this small size, Chiang said, is that the system doesn’t have a battery. It harvests the sparse radio-frequency energy from a nearby device – in this case, a cell phone. The small smart phone carried by hundreds of millions of people around the world can now provide the energy for important biomedical monitoring at the same time. The new technology could be used in conjunction with cell phones or other radio-frequency devices within about 15 feet, but the underlying micropowered system-on-a- chip technology can be run by other energy-harvested power sources, such as body heat or physical movement.
Stanford University engineers have developed the first solar cell made entirely of carbon – a promising alternative to the expensive materials used in photovoltaic devices today. The thin-film prototype is made of carbon materials that can be coated from solution – a technique that has the potential to reduce manufacturing costs.
“Every component in our solar cell, from top to bottom, is made of carbon materials,” says Stanford graduate student Michael Vosgueritchian. “Other groups have reported making all-carbon solar cells, but they were referring to just the active layer in the middle, not the electrodes.”
The experimental solar cell consists of a photoactive layer, which absorbs sunlight, sandwiched between two electrodes. In a typical thin film solar cell, the electrodes are made of conductive metals and indium tin oxide. One drawback of the all-carbon prototype is that it primarily absorbs near-infrared wavelengths of light, contributing to a laboratory efficiency of less than 1 percent – much lower than commercially available solar cells.
The more time it takes for an earthquake fault to heal, the faster the shake it will produce when it finally ruptures, according to a new study by engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, who conducted their work using a tabletop model of a quake fault. While the study does nothing to bring scientists closer to predicting when the next big one will hit, the findings could help engineers better assess the vulnerabilities of buildings, bridges, and other structures when a fault does rupture.
“The experiment in our lab allows us to consider how long a fault has healed and more accurately predict the type of shaking that would occur when it ruptures,” said Steven Glaser, UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering and principal investigator of the study. “That’s important in improving building designs and developing plans to mitigate for possible damage.”
To create a fault model, the researchers placed a Plexiglas slider block against a larger base plate and equipped the system with sensors. The design allowed the researchers to isolate the physical and mechanical factors, such as friction, that influence how the ground will shake when a fault ruptures.
It would be impossible to do such a detailed study on faults that lie several miles below the surface of the ground, the authors said. And current instruments are generally unable to accurately measure waves at frequencies higher than approximately 100 Hertz because they get absorbed by the earth.
Noting that fault surfaces are not smooth, the researchers roughened the surface of the Plexiglas used in the lab’s model. As the sides “heal” and press together, the researchers found that individual contact points slip and transfer the resulting energy to other contact points.
“As the pressing continues and more contacts slip, the stress is transferred to other contact points in a chain reaction until even the strongest contacts fail, releasing the stored energy as an earthquake,” said Steven Glaser, UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering and principal investigator of the study. “The longer the fault healed before rupture, the more rapidly the surface vibrated.”
Among Solar System objects, the Pluto/Charon system is among the least understood. The ignorance of the Pluto/Charon system is due in part to its distance from Earth, and as well as its size and eccentricity of its orbit around about the Sun. Understanding the outer solar system is important because this part of the solar system most resembles the early stages of the solar system’s development.
When the New Horizons spacecraft encounters the Pluto/Charon system in 2015, it will have traveled approximately 33 AU in the shortest time of all the spacecraft to date. The probe will spend approximately 150 earth-days characterizing and measuring the Pluto/Charon system to a much higher level of accuracy than possible from even Hubble. Its science suite consists of seven instrument packages:
The objectives of the New Horizons mission may be summed in one sentence: characterize and understand the aspects of the early Solar System. The methods which New Horizons will use consist of:
Understand Global geology & morphology of the Pluto/Charon system
Map the Pluto/Charon system
Attempt to identify Pluto’s atmosphere.
Trajectory of New Horizons probe
After numerous Keck and Hubble images, it was determined that Pluto contains a wispy atmosphere that will wax and wane proportionate to its eccentricity and distance from the Sun.
At this point, let’s speak more of the instrumentation packages:
RALPH is a single telescope with two separate image collectors—Visible and infrared
Multispectral visible imaging camera (MVIC) will produce visible color images of the Pluto/Charon system.
Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) is an infrared imager designed to measure the distribution of Methane, molecular Nitrogen, Carbon Monoxide and Water.
Alice is a UV spectrometer—it will measure Ultraviolet light absorption of Pluto in two modes:
“’Airglow mode’”- no star occultation
REX is a Radio experiment that has two purposes:
Through the bending of the radio waves through interplanetary space—it is designed to characterize the average molecular weight of Pluto’s atmosphere
REX is also designed to measure weak radio emissions from the Pluto’s surface—namely, it will derive an accurate temperature of the night-side temperature.
LORRI enables investigators to map Pluto down to 100 meter resolution in the visible light with an effective 8 inch aperture.
PEPSSI is a low-resolution plasma detection device designed to roughly count the escape of atoms from Pluto.
SWAP will measure the amount of solar wind near Pluto—and in effect determines Pluto’s magnetosphere.
Finally, a public outreach experiment—the Student Dust Counter (SDC) is built and managed by students at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The main objective of SDC is to count and measure the size of interplanetary dust particles.
When the New Horizons probe completes its Solar System trek—we may muse that it was just a small step in a long journey past the Pluto/Charon system. We might—if luck prevails—have a better understanding of our Solar System’s origins as a result from New Horizons, as well as, by future probes.
From Invisible Braces to Water Filtration, NASA has patented some of the most useful products available today. Each year since 1976, NASA has published every product linked to its research.
In 1958, President Eisenhower signed the Space Act, officially creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. From the beginning, the purpose for the new branch extended beyond space ships and moon boots. The law stipulated that its research and advancements should benefit all people, and in its 50-year history, NASA has certainly fulfilled that role.
Although most people today will never set foot on the moon, everyone likely comes in contact with a NASA by-product every day. Partnering with various research teams and companies, NASA continues to spawn a vast array of new technologies and products that have improved our daily lives. Basic steps in health, safety, communications and even casual entertainment find their roots in the government branch commonly associated with rocket ships and floating people. In fact, NASA has filed more than 6,300 patents with the U.S. government .
Each year since 1976, NASA has published a list of every commercialized technology and product linked to its research. The NASA journal “Spinoff” highlights these products, which have included things like improved pacemakers, state of the art exercise machines and satellite radio. Each product was made possible thanks to a NASA idea or innovation.
But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to use many of these so-called spinoffs. Read on to learn about ten of these familiar products.
10. Invisible Braces
Many teenagers cringe at the prospect of braces. Getting one’s teeth in order used to mean enduring a mouth full of metal, but not so anymore. Invisible braces hit the market in 1987, and now there are multiple brands.
Invisible braces are made of translucent polycrystalline alumina (TPA). A company called Ceradyne developed TPA in conjunction with NASA Advanced Ceramics Research to protect the infrared antennae of heat-seeking missile trackers.
In the meantime, another company, Unitek, was working on a new design for dental braces — a design that would be more aesthetically pleasing and would not have the shiny metallic factor. It discovered that TPA would be strong enough to withstand use and is translucent, making it a prime material for invisible braces. Because of their instant popularity, invisible braces are one of the most successful products in the orthodontic industry .
9. Scratch-resistant Lenses
If you drop a pair of eyeglasses on the ground, the lenses probably won’t break. That’s because in 1972, the Food and Drug Administration began requiring manufacturers to use plastic rather than glass to make lenses. Plastics are cheaper to use, better at absorbing ultraviolet radiation, lighter and not prone to shattering . Nevertheless, they also had an Achilles heel. Uncoated plastics tend to scratch easily, and scuffed lenses could impair someone’s sight.
Because of dirt and particles found in space environments, NASA needed a special coating to protect space equipment, particularly astronaut helmet visors. Recognizing an opportunity, the Foster-Grant sunglasses manufacturer licensed the NASA technology for its products. The special plastics coating made its sunglasses ten times more scratch-resistant than uncoated plastics .
8. Memory Foam
NASA helps some people sleep better at night. Temper foam found in Tempurpedic brand mattresses and similar brands was originally developed for space flight and later repackaged for the home.
The open cell polyurethane-silicon plastic was created for use in NASA aircraft seats to lessen impact during landings. The plastic has a unique property that allows it to evenly distribute the weight and pressure on top of it, which provides shock absorbency. Even after being compressed to 10 percent of its size, the memory foam will return to its original shape . Some private and commercial planes now feature the foam in seats as well.
But the uses of the plastic foam extend beyond the skies. Its weight distribution and temperature sensitivity play important roles for severely disabled or bedridden people. Doctors can customize the foam to support patients while reducing the pressure on certain parts of the body to ward off bedsores, for instance. Some companies also have integrated temper foam into prosthetic limbs because it has the same look and feel of skin and decreases the friction between the prosthetic and joints.
Other commercial uses include padding for motorcycle seats, custom body molds for dressmaking and protection for racecar drivers.
7. Ear Thermometer
Taking your temperature when sick can be tricky business. A standard mercury thermometercan prove difficult to read, and a rectal one is just plain uncomfortable. In 1991, infrared thermometers that you place into your ears took the work out of it, simplifying and speeding up the process.
Diatek, which developed the first of these kinds of thermometers, saw a need to reduce the amount of time nurses spend taking temperatures. With around one billion temperature readings taken in hospitals in the United States each year and a shortage of nurses, the company set out to shave off the precious minutes otherwise required to watch mercury rise . Instead, Diatek took advantage of NASA’sprevious advancements in measuring the temperature of stars with infrared technology.
Together with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the company invented an infrared sensor that serves as the thermometer. Aural thermometers with these infrared sensors take your temperature by measuring the amount of energy your eardrum gives off into the ear canal . Since the eardrum is inside our bodies, it acts as an accurate sensor for the energy, or heat, inside of our bodies that increases when we get sick. Hospital models can perform a temperature reading in less than two seconds .
6. Shoe Insoles
When Neil Armstrong famously spoke of “one giant leap for mankind,” he probably didn’t foresee the literal connotation it would come to have. Today’s athletic shoes have borrowed the technology of the moon boots that first took that leap.
The space suit designed for the Apollo missions included specially-made boots that put a spring in astronaut’s steps while providing ventilation. Athletic shoe companies have taken this technology and adopted it to construct better shoes that lessen the impact on your feet and legs.
For instance, in the mid-1980s, shoe company KangaROOS USA applied the principles and materials in moon boots to a new line of athletic shoes. With help from NASA, KangaROOS patented a Dynacoil three-dimensional polyurethane foam fabric that distributes the force on your feet that happens when you walk or run . By coiling the fibers within the fabric, the KangaROOS absorb the energy from your foot hitting the ground, rebounding it back to your feet.
Another shoe manufacturer, AVIA, also converted moon boot technology to use in athletic shoes . The patented AVIA compression chamber provided shock absorption and spring in the shoes for longer periods of use.
5. Long-distance Telecommunications
The ability to carry on long-distance telephone conversations did not happen overnight. It doesn’t link back to one specific NASA invention — improved telecommunication took place over decades of work.
Before humans were sent into space, NASA built satellites that could communicate with people on the ground about what outer space was like. Using similar satellite technology, around 200 communication satellites orbit the globe each day. These satellites send and receive messages that allow us to call our friends in Beijing when we’re in Boston. NASA monitors the locations and health of many of these satellites to ensure that we can continue to talk to people around the corner or overseas.
4. Adjustable Smoke Detector
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. NASA engineers knew that simple fact when they were designing Skylab in the 1970s. Skylab was the first U.S. space station, and the astronautswould need to know if a fire had started or if noxious gases were loose in the vehicle. Teaming up with Honeywell Corporation, NASA invented the first adjustable smoke detector with different sensitivity levels to prevent false alarms.
You can read about smoke detectors in more detail in How Smoke Detectors Work, but the first one to hit the consumer market is called the ionization smoke detector. That essentially means that it uses a radioactive element called americium-241 to spot smoke or harmful gasses. When clean air particles of oxygen and nitrogen move through smoke detectors, the americium-241 ionizes them, which creates an electrical current. If foreign smoke particles enter the smoke detector, it disrupts that interaction, triggering the alarm.
3. Safety Grooving
Carving a groove into concrete may not sound like much of an innovation, but it certainly keeps us safe on the roads. Also called safety grooving, this simple, yet lifesaving, process inserts long, shallow channels into pavement on runways and roads. These indentions in the concrete divert excess water from the surface to reduce the amount of water between tires and the runway or road. This increases the friction between wheels and concrete, improving vehicle safety.
Safety grooving was first experimented with at NASA’s Langely Research Center in the 1960s as a way to improve safety for aircraft taking off on wet runways. Once people realized how well it worked, transportation engineers began applying the same techniques to highways. According to NASA, safety grooving has reduced highway accidents by 85 percent . Cars hydroplane when water between tires and the road actually separates the two from each other.
You can find other examples of safety grooving at pedestrian crosswalks, around swimming pools and in animal pens. This innovation has generated an entire industry, represented by the International Grooving & Grinding Association .
2. Cordless Tools
When you’re sucking up bits of dirt or crumbs around the house with a handheld cordlessvacuum, you are actually using the same technology that astronauts used on the moon. Although Black & Decker had already invented the first battery-powered tools in 1961 , the NASA-related research helped refine the technology that led to lightweight, cordless medical instruments, hand-held vacuum cleaners and other tools.
In the mid-1960s, to prepare for the Apollo missions to the moon, NASA needed a tool that astronauts could use to obtain samples of rocks and soil. The drill had to be lightweight, compact and powerful enough to dig deep into the surface of the moon. Since rigging up a cord to a drill in outer space would be a difficult feat, NASA and Black & Decker invented a battery-powered, magnet-motor drill . Working in the context of a limited space environment, Black & Decker developed a computer program for the tool that reduced the amount of power expended during use to maximize battery life.
After the NASA project, Black & Decker applied the same principles to make other lightweight, battery-powered tools for everyday consumers.
1. Water Filters
Water is the essential ingredient to human survival. Since people cannot live without water, the ability to convert contaminated water to pure water is an incredibly important scientific achievement.
Astronauts needed a way to cleanse water they take up into space, since bacteria and sickness would be highly problematic. Water filter technology had existed since the early 1950s, butNASA wanted to know how to clean water in more extreme situations and keep it clean for longer periods of time.
If you look at a water filter, you can usually detect small chunks of charcoal inside of them. Sometimes, when you first use a water filter, you’ll even notice tiny black flecks from those chunks. This charcoal is specially activated and contains silver ions that neutralize pathogens in the water. Along with killing bacteria in the water, the filters also prevent further bacterial growth. Companies have borrowed from this same technology to bring us the water filter systems millions of people use at home every day.
Scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center have built the most affordable satellite to date, a $3,500 device the size of a coffee cup that uses an off-the-shelf HTC Nexus One smartphone as a central processor. (A cheap off-the-shelf radio antenna handles communication with the ground.) PhoneSat 1.0, scheduled to launch by the end of this year, will beam back photos of Earth on an amateur radio band for 10 days, or until the battery dies. Subsequent iterations will be capable of much more: PhoneSat 2.0 will have a two-way S-band radio antenna (which most satellites use to communicate with the ground) and solar panels for extended power.