Despite the daunting debt problems faced by the U.S. government, many federal operations, including the Defense Department and the space agency, NASA, need the latest technology to carry out their missions. That technology is developed and sold to the government by private contract companies like the Lockheed Martin corporation, which recently brought some of its latest innovations to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for an event called NexTech.
A robot, called Sprockit, roamed around the exhibit hall, entertaining visitors and directing them to some of the more serious presentations...
Paul Monday is a Lockheed Martin engineer who helps develop such systems.
“When you turn your head, the view updates, too, as you turn your head," said Martin. "So it is a smooth view and it feels like you are looking at that world in Afghanistan.”
Monday says the military can use this for medical testing: to identify physical problems before a soldier is deployed to the much rougher, real terrain.
For 26-year-old Chris Spence, who grew up playing video games, these systems are a delight.
“Of course, there is work involved, but a platform like this makes it a lot of fun," he said.
The Lockheed Martin system demonstrator says this program is adaptable to all kinds of training situations.
“This display is showing a ground vehicle, but the capability of the software allows us to go anywhere, to train in a multitude of different domains," said Spence.
But these virtual reality systems go beyond training, Pacale Rondot of Lockheed Martin's Human Immersive Lab explains.
“You see behind me this model who is driving an avatar in the virtual world," said Rondot. "It is performing a task to validate maintenance of the aircraft.”
She says this system helps engineers check for flaws in design before an aircraft is built.
“We are reducing the overall cost of our product by making sure we are doing things right, right at the beginning, before we start cutting any metal," she said.
Not everything on display was virtual. This exoskeleton, called HULC, allows a person to carry more than 100 kilograms with ease.
Former astronaut Rick Hieb, who is now a Lockheed Martin vice president, explains how it works.
“It is an exoskeleton, powered," said Hieb. "It has a battery system in the back, motors and hydraulics, and it actually senses his motions and then tries to predict and help.”
NASA's ambitious plans for the coming decades include the use of big rockets to fly astronauts to an asteroid, something NexTech participants were able to simulate in this mock space craft cockpit.
But Rick Hieb says NASA also needs a lot of other technology applications, and adapting some that have already been used by the military or private sector makes sense.
“As we look at the future, we are looking at a lot of smaller high-technology development activities and the focus is on how we use this technology to accomplish NASA's mission more cheaply, faster, in the future," he said.
And Hieb says the reality of shrinking federal budgets makes the search for cost efficiency even more urgent.