What do superglue, post-it notes, and the microwave oven have in common? You guessed it: they were all invented by accident. The researchers were working on something else, but came up with phenomena leading to these fine innovations, each of which has changed the world in its own way.
Three important points: first, even though all of these were invented by accident, they needed the proper circumstances in order to emerge. In other words, there had to be investments allocated in the research. If Harry Coover Jr. hadn’t have the mandate to try and invent a new kind of rifle sight during the World War II, he wouldn’t have ended up with discovering superglue.
Secondly, nowadays the potential by-products are taken into account already when planning the research projects. The process of expanding research results into wider usage is called technology transfer.
Space projects are huge efforts in terms of man hours and needed technologies. Often the most expensive technologies are first applied to satellite-based instruments in order to get the best performance out from sensors. It takes a long-term engineering development and qualification process to get new technology into an operating satellite.
High-end technologies are typically too expensive to be used in consumer related products right away after applied to space instruments. This brings us to the third and final point: technology transfer takes time. The road from space to consumer segment can take 10, 20, or even 30 years. Steps between space and consumer products often include professional, industrial and infrastructure applications. During that time technology also becomes cheaper which makes it more suitable for consumer products.
As an example of technology transfer, consider MilliLab: VTT together with DA-Design (formerly Ylinen Electronics) were responsible for the developments of European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck surveyor 70 GHz millimeter wave radiometers for the Planck. They were initially intended to find out the early steps and further evolution of the Universe. This radiometer technology development and space qualification were mainly carried out in 1997–2006. Technologies developed at that time are now being applied to the fifth generation telecommunication systems (5G) which will also include millimeter wave frequency bands and technologies. So, from investigating the origins of the universe to enabling the virtual reality video call to your grandma – not bad!
Another application area for the millimeter waves is a radar sensor for visually impaired persons to help their everyday life. The radar senses approaching obstacles and information is guided to the user by vibrating or voice instructions. There are 300 million visually impaired people globally so there is significant market potential for this.
The cycle from original millimeter research to consumer products was 20 years and definitely worth it! The millimeter wave technology is just one example in Finland where important investments and developments for space technologies have been done in the past and later applied to other application areas. Technology transfer from space to non-space applications has been in minds of Finnish engineers when planning participation to space programs. Space programs are long-term developments and investment payback from consumer products takes time. However, without these investments, we would not have the scientific findings and technical competences ready to apply for new applications and products.
If you are interested in how to apply space technologies and satellite data into new innovative products and applications, check out The Nasa Europa Challenge.