Daniel Lockney is in the business of ensuring NASA technology is reused for practical applications like public safety, health and information technology.
As head of the Technology Transfer Program, Lockney and his team oversee NASA’s intellectual property and promote commercial use and public availability of federally-owned inventions, such as the infrared, handheld cameras first used by NASA and now by firefighters to locate hot spots in wildfires.
To further that mission, NASA will release a software catalog this month, showcasing NASA code that can be used for issues with business systems and project management, design and integration tools and other areas, Lockney said. The goal is to build a searchable software repository by year’s end.
Lockney spoke with Federal Times Staff Writer Nicole Blake Johnson to discuss the effort.
What are some of the
challenges in creating
a software catalog and
We have over a hundred thousand researchers if you include contractors and civil servants, and everyone [is] reporting as many inventions as they make. And just the scale of it is phenomenal, and the logistics of negotiating the bureaucracy and working within government with all the rules and red tape makes this type of thing somewhat difficult. We are just now starting to understand the increasingly important role that software has to play in everything that we do. You cannot do anything without software anymore and you know, that is true in our everyday lives as you are scanning your metro card to get on the metro, or you are checking your cellphone to see the weather, or using your electronic key card to get into your room or any of those types of things.
And everything is controlled by software. NASA Missions are no exception.
How might agencies
benefit from this project?
Showing the American public the value to this endeavor, I think is important. Everyone in the federal government, when they start programs and projects, they think in terms of make or buy. I need to do this thing and I have got this challenge. I will need software that does this. Do I make it myself, hire someone or sit down with a software designer or engineering to write the code? Or do we go out and buy something off the shelf? There is a third option that we want people to start looking at. Maybe it has already been made, and why don’t you just take ours?
What will be included in NASA’s online software catalog?
We’ve got a website where we are going to put it. It is called technology.NASA.gov. The first version is going to be this static catalog. It will be available as a PDF. Within that the software is divided into 15 different subject categories. So, we have 15 different subject categories, and each of the pieces of code is then binned into one of those. And they vary from aeronautics to power systems, and we found everything we had fits in one of these categories.
We may refine those a little bit later down the line as we put more code into it and we get more feedback. Within those categories, we did a further scrub according to release levels. Some software anyone in the world can have, no questions asked, right away. Some software we will only share with U.S. citizens, and it has to do with levels of security and a combination of levels of security, ITAR restrictions and economic competitiveness.
Are there guidelines
for how the software
can be used?
There is a formal agreement. I am actually surprised by how well people adhere to it. It is very trusting. We say, “when you are done with this software, you must return it.” That is not how software works, but people send it back to us. In the mail, they will literally send back the CD that they had it on. But that is for something more sensitive or to certify that it has been destroyed, and that is with the more sensitive type of stuff.
There are research applications that we allow and then all the way to the more strict stuff that we have safety concerns with that perhaps we will only share it within the government.
What’s the more strict stuff?
Let’s say guidance and navigation systems software for rockets. It is pretty sophisticated guidance algorithms that for our use in the controlled environment are safe and appropriate. But we would not necessarily want those released outside of government applications or outside of the U.S., in particular.
How will the software
All of this stuff will be searchable on our portal. But this catalog is going to be made dynamic, automatically updated and then put online through a searchable database before the end of the fiscal year. We are going to start adding to it, also. We are hoping that scientists and engineers come out of the woodwork [asking] “how come mine [software] is not in there?” “Well, because you have not told anyone about it yet.” And the catalog will grow as a result. Economic benefit will increase, also.
How much code will be
in the searchable
Everything that is in the catalog we hope to have in the repository. We’ve written out the requirements for it and sent them off to developers. The level of security required for the repository might dictate what we put in it. If it turns out that it is more complex to build something that keeps everything, prohibitively complex, then we might build something that just holds what is available for general U.S. release, which is still hundreds of codes. We do not want to make a hacker magnet.
This effort aligns with the administration’s priority goals?
It fits in with the president’s management agenda, which is to facilitate access and open federal R&D assets. It fits in also with a memorandum that the president released in October of 2011, which is accelerating technology transfer. But then it also fits in with what NASA has been doing since it has been founded. We’re the first agency that in its founding legislation had technology transfer language. Congress said, “You can have this money for space exploration, but do not just send dollars and technology into space. Make it come back down to Earth and form practical and tangible benefits. So, bring the future back here.” NASA has been doing that ever since the beginning. It has created technologies that you find in your everyday life. One of them is the cellphone cameras. All of the cameras in modern cell phones, the high-resolution cameras that you get in your iPhone, those were developed at our Jet Propulsion Lab in California for cleaning up deep space imagery.
We do not patent software. We only patent technologies that are low enough readiness level that they require a couple more years of R&D in order for a company to commercialize them. We interpret software as not patentable, which is nice. We also, because we are the government, we do not hold copyright. So, we don’t do copyright licenses. We do not do patent licenses on software. We give it away. We restrict access to it in some cases.
NASA engages in about 1,500 software usage agreements annually. What does that entail?
We will have sample usage agreements on the website. We will also have contact information. We have people called Software Release Authorities — SRAs — and they are in every one of our NASA field centers. If you read through the software and you say, “I really want that CFD code — Computational Fluid Dynamics code — for modeling of airflow because I could use it to design a race car, which has been done, there will be a name associated with it, and you’ll fill out a form. We are in the process of making the forms as painless as possible. That is another big goal for this next year is streamlining, automating, simplifying and just making everything as user friendly as possible.
Can you briefly explain the difference between acquiring and licensing NASA’s software?
In some instances, we have co-inventors on a software where it will be a government person and a contractor. And if there is a contractor on it, then the contracting company can elect title for the software, meaning that they get to own it still. But we, because we paid for it and worked on it, still have the rights to use it across the government. So, we would license it through their copyright to other people to use it. Primarily, the way those would work would be we would let other government agencies and other government contractors use it. If there is a commercial company that is interested in it, we cannot give you that for free because this other person has got first rights on it. They would contact that company directly and license it from them.
If our software is a core enabling element of something that they choose to patent, I think that is a case by case basis. You cannot take the software that we give you for free, put it in a box, and put it on a shelf and then sell it to other people. However, it can and should and it is encouraged to be applied to and used in commercial applications and products.
Have you put a price tag
or estimated value on
what the software has
been used to develop?
This is complicated. It has been done ever since the beginning of the agency. Somebody has always come up with a number. You will always find an economist willing to run a study and give you that magic silver bullet multiplier. Each one of those studies is flawed in its own fundamental way. So, we do not report those anymore.
We can comfortably say that NASA’s Technology Transfer has resulted in billions of dollars of revenue, billions of cost savings, saved tens of thousands of lives and created tens of thousands of jobs.