NASA's IT Future: Robot Telework, 3-D Printing

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's philosophy -- prototype new tech based on what non-IT workers envision -- could pay off in robot telework, spacecraft created by 3-D printers and more.
11 Cool Tools NASA Curiosity Brought To Mars
11 Cool Tools NASA Curiosity Brought To Mars
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NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory wants to pilot more early-stage information technologies, whether they be three-dimensional printing, robotics, or new user interfaces, NASA JPL CTO for IT Tom Soderstrom said Wednesday.

Speaking over a video link -- multimedia videoconferencing is another technology the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is testing -- to attendees gathered as part of a regular series of colloquia at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Soderstrom said that NASA JPL is relying on its employees to push pilot projects and IT prototypes.

"IT as we know it is going away," Soderstrom said. "It's all about innovating together. NASA is not going to get famous for IT, it's for putting rovers on Mars, for putting the Hubble Telescope out there, and we should use IT to support that mission. Which technology is going to be the winner? It's not going to be IT that decides."

With that in mind, JPL is actively piloting a number of cutting-edge IT capabilities and has even sent teams of non-IT workers to the Consumer Electronics Show to report back on technologies that they think they could use in their jobs. The agency has worked with a large range of companies and agencies on prototypes and pilots within the last year, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Toyota and others.

[ Read Humanoid Robot Challenge Kicks Off At DARPA. ]

"Historically, we would lay out a big budget, plan it, and then a year later deliver something that nobody wanted because it was too much time," Soderstrom said. "What we do now is lay it out and then prototype." Ideation to prototype could be as short as a matter of weeks, he added.

Some of the technologies being tested are far out, while others are innovative but to be expected. On the futuristic side, NASA JPL is heavily interested in desktop three-dimensional printing to print out tools and parts; remote-controlled robots with video screens that enable employees working elsewhere to navigate the physical office environment and hold multimedia interactions with colleagues; and user interfaces that use technologies such as Microsoft Kinect to allow users to manipulate images on the screen with simple hand gestures a la Minority Report.

One of the new technologies NASA JPL is exploring, three-dimensional printing, "is something that's really revolutionary," said Gabriel Rangel, JPL assistant CTO and emerging IT solutions engineer, holding up a wrench printed on a three-dimensional printer. "We're now able to look [at] and print out different devices. Imagine a mechanical design center, to be able to print out a working part." Soderstrom added that the technology might someday even be used to print out a spacecraft.

Another area of focus at JPL is the "workplace of the future." Projects in this area cover everything from gesture-based computing to remote-controlled devices. On the gesture front, JPL is experimenting with technologies from companies such as Microsoft Kinect, Leap Motion and Oblong Industries.

But the most interesting project might be what the agency calls Robotic Mobile JPLers. With this technology, JBL employees working remotely pilot a remote-controlled device that's connected by the Internet to employees' computers. The wheeled robot has a sound system, a screen that shows the JPL employee's face, a video camera and a microphone, allowing the remote employee to virtually navigate the physical space at JPL and interact with other employees. "It's very early experimental, but it works quite well," said Soderstrom. For example, the agency has used the technology to enable a sick employee to be able to virtually attend important meetings.

On the tamer side, NASA JPL has bought heavily into mobile apps, big data, cloud computing, mobile apps and collaboration technologies like wikis and an internal video sharing site called JPL Tube. JPL Tube has been successful enough that JPL is now prototyping a NASA-wide version called NASA Tube that might soon be more broadly available.

More than half of federal agencies are saving money with cloud computing, but security, compatibility, and skills present huge problems, according to our survey. Also in the Cloud Business Case issue of InformationWeek Government: President Obama's record on IT strategy is long on vision but short on results. (Free registration required.)

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