NASA squandering technology commercialization opportunities

NASA Inspector General report critical of NASA technology commercialization efforts

The commercialization of all manner of space technologies has always been a forte of NASA, but the space agency faces a number of economic and internal challenges if that success is to continue.

A report by released this week by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin that assesses NASA's technology commercialization efforts is highly critical of the space agency's ability to identify and get important technologies out of the lab and out the door to commercial applications.

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The report noted that decreased funding and reductions in personnel have hindered NASA's technology transfer efforts. Specifically, funding for technology transfer has decreased from $60 million in fiscal year (FY) 2004 to $19 million in FY 2012 while the number of patent attorneys at the Centers dropped from 29 to 19 over the same period. As a result, patent filings decreased by 37%.

Martin's report cites a number of "missed opportunities to transfer technologies from its research and development efforts and to maximize partnerships with other entities that could benefit from NASA-developed technologies."  For example:

  • Algorithms designed to enable an aircraft to fly precisely through the same airspace on multiple flights - a development that could have commercial application for improving the autopilot function of older aircraft - was not considered for technology transfer because project personnel were not aware of the various types of innovations that could be candidates for the program.
  • NASA personnel failed to capitalize fully on the Flight Loads Laboratory at Dryden Flight Research Center - a unique facility used for aeronautic testing services - because they did not recognize the facility as a transferable technology and consequently had not developed a Commercialization Plan to manage customer demand.
  • The NASA project team for a precision landing and hazard avoidance project was not aware of NASA's technology commercialization policy and had not conducted a commercial assessment or developed a Commercialization Plan for the project. However, team members provided us with several examples from their work that could be considered new technologies with potential commercial application, such as technology to improve communication between aircraft and air traffic control that could be useful to the aviation community and technology to aid helicopter landings during dust storms, low cloud cover, fog, or other periods of low visibility that could be useful to the military.

Aside from reduced money for their efforts, NASA project managers and other personnel responsible for executing NASA's technology transfer processes could improve their effectiveness in identifying and planning for the transfer and commercialization of NASA technologies. Specifically, NASA personnel did not realize the transfer potential of some technological assets and project managers did not develop Technology Commercialization Plans that provide a methodology for identifying potential commercial partners, Martin stated.

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For its part NASA did not disagree with the report's observations and promised to address the situation with training and other The office of the NASA Chief Technologist said he will review "personnel and funding requirements needed to implement the updated technology transfer and commercialization requirements and will assess whether fiscal and personnel resources are aligned with and adequate to meet the updated requirements."

Creating new technologies is fundamental to NASA's mission, and facilitating the transfer of these technologies to other government agencies, industry, and international entities is one of the Agency's strategic goals. Technology transfer promotes commerce, encourages economic growth, stimulates innovation, and offers benefits to the public and industry, Martin notes.  

NASA has had plenty of success in transferring technology with some reports showing it has spun off some 1,500 different technologies.  The Martin report points to aerodynamics research conducted at Dryden Flight Research Center that led to a method to decrease the "box-shaped" aerodynamic drag of trucks by 40%, thereby increasing fuel efficiency. Truck manufacturers that have incorporated these design improvements are realizing 15 to 25 percent more fuel efficiency at highway speeds.

Other tools such as NASA hyperbaric chamber technology is being used in medical treatments.  For example NASA has a patent license with OxyHeal systems to use three technologies developed at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston that are associated with inflatable spacecraft modules and portable hyperbaric chambers.

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