Monday, April 21, 2014

More Canadian Tech for the Space Technology Hall of Fame

          by Brian Orlotti

Two more life-saving space technologies with a Canadian genesis will soon be inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame.


The Cospas-Sarsat global satellite system, which grew out of a 1979 agreements between the US, France, Canada and the USSR to jointly develop a global search and rescue satellite system, and the NeuroArm, an image-guided, MR-compatible surgical robot derived from technology originally developed for the CanadArm, will be honoured during the annual Space Technology Hall of Fame gala dinner, which will be held as part of the 30th annual Space Symposium of the Space Foundation on May 22nd in Colorado Springs, CO.

The two technologies join Ottawa based Mediphan, inducted in 2013 and discussed in the April 13th, 2013 post "Canadian based Mediphan Inducted into Space Technology Hall of Fame" along with 68 other space derived technologies, which have been inducted over the last 26 years.


The event is organized by the Colorado Springs based Space Foundation, a US based space advocacy group founded in 1983 to support and raise awareness of the global space industry through various education and outreach programs. The organization also publishes a well respected, annual Space Report on global space activity, which is normally released during the Space Symposium.

The Cospas-Sarsat Global Satellite System
In 1979, the US, France, Canada and the USSR signed an agreement to jointly develop a global search-and-rescue satellite system which became fully operational in 1985. Since its inception, the system has helped rescue over 32,000 people.
The first generation system used five low-Earth orbit satellites to detect signals from emergency beacons and repeat them to ground stations where doppler processing provides the signal location.  These satellites used an instrument called a Search and Rescue Repeater (SARR), developed by the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) to relay the beacon signal to a local ground station for Doppler processing to obtain a location. The location data is then relayed to search and rescue organizations. 
In 1997, a Canadian government study determined that a better Sarsat system would be one based on medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites. A MEO system would provide full global coverage, accurately determine an emergency beacon's location, and require fewer ground stations. GPS was identified as the ideal MEO system. 
NASA led a development effort to create what will eventually become the Distress Alerting Satellite System (DASS). The next generation DASS will incorporate search and rescue transponders directly on-board various global satellite navigation systems including the US' Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) and the European Union's upcoming Galileo satellite navigation system. DASS will enable satellites to instantly pinpoint an emergency beacon's exact location, thus eliminating the need for ground-based doppler calculations and provide more accurate data more quickly to search and rescue organizations. 
Today, forty one countries participate in the operation and management of Cospas-Sarsat with over 1 million beacons in use worldwide. Cospas-Sarsat is headquartered in Montreal, PQ. 
The NeuroArm
In 1969, NASA invited Canada to participate in the space shuttle program. A request for proposals for a Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) resulted in a proposal from a group of firms including  Spar Aerospace (now MacDonald, Dettwiler), CAE Electronics, RCA Canada and Dilworth, Secord, Meagher and Associates. 
The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) began studies on a manipulator system and in 1975, Canada and NASA launched a $110Mln CDN development program. 
The first SRMS (which became known as the Canadarm), was donated to NASA and was followed by four additional systems accomplishing over 90 missions. An improved version, called Canadarm2, specifically built to assemble to components of the International Space Station (ISS), was first deployed in 2001. This was followed in 2008 by the advanced two-armed Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (DEXTRE) which currently performs ISS maintenance and repairs and also serves as a robotics test bed.
Following the success of Dextre, Macdonald Dettwiler was approached by Dr. Garnette Sutherland of the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services in search of partners to help develop NeuroArm, an MRI-guided robot used for performing microsurgery. On May 12th, 2008, a surgical team at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, AB performed the first image-guided neuro-surgical procedure with a robot, with the neurosurgeon controlling NeuroArm from an adjacent room. NeuroArm enables microsurgeries to be both more precise and less invasive

In 2010, NeuroArm's patents and technology were purchased by Minneapolis-based medical equipment firm IMRIS Inc. IMRIS, formerly based in Winnipeg, is now developing a next-generation version of NeuroArm called Symbis.
Brian Orlotti.
The Canadian genesis of these life-saving technologies is a testament to the skill and ingenuity of its space sector. Canadian space technology's rich heritage of enhancing life on Earth as well as in space should be honoured, so that the achievements of our past can inspire us to create a better future.
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Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

Sunday, April 20, 2014

CSA President Walt Natynczyk Pops-up and Looks Around

          by Chuck Black

Nine months after formally stepping into the role of Canadian Space Agency (CSA) president in August 2013, retired Canadian Forces (CF) Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) General Walt Natynczyk has finally begun providing details on the direction he's been tasked to take the agency. But the media response to this new openness suggests that there are many questions still to be addressed.

"The General" highlighting important drivers behind "Canada's space policy framework" in Montreal on April 15th. As outlined in the April 15th, 2014 45eNord.ca article "Walter Natynczyk à Montréal: avenir du Canada dans l’espace et Russie," these drivers include sovereignty, security and  national prosperity, plus the creation of a "vigorous" economy derived from space sector innovation and international collaboration. Photo c/o Nicolas Laffont/45eNord.ca. 

In a series of articles related to coverage of his April 15th, 2014 appearance at the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations (MCFR) to speak on the topic of "A Strategic Vision for the Future of Canada in Space," Natynczyk responded frankly and publicly on a variety of topics.

But the specifics of the answers aren't entirely a glowing endorsement of the CSA or of its ability to follow-through with its proposed role as outlined in "Canada's space policy framework," the Federal government position paper announced by Industry Minister James Moore on February 7th, 2014 and most recently discussed in the April 13th, 2014 post "Power-Points from the February 25th Canadian Space Agency Meeting."

For example, the April 16th, 2014 Canadian Press article "Tensions with Russia not affecting space station: Canadian Space Agency," quoted Natynczyk as stating that Canada continues to work with "all its partners involved in the space station," which include the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan without noting that the final decision to continue on with International Space Station (ISS) activities is primarily a political decision, which likely won't be made at the CSA level.


As outlined in the April 7th, 2014 post "The Crimean Crisis and Canadian Aerospace Activities," other Canadian aerospace and space partnerships have indeed been derailed or curtailed due to the Crimean crisis. The April 19th, 2014 NetNews Ledger article "Canadian businesses should prepare for broader sanctions against Russia" has suggested that further sanctions and more disruption could be around the corner.

International relations might not be the only external constraint on CSA activities. There might also be budget concerns.

For example, the April 15th, 2014 QMI article "Canada to focus on payloads, not rockets, says space boss" quoted Natynczyk as stating that it's cheaper to rent rocket rides from corporations or other space agencies rather than start a launch program from scratch and that "the CSA's budget isn't the only federal money that can be used for extra-terrestrial projects."

The article also quoted Natynczyk's boss, Industry Minister Moore, who said that the CSA has "more than enough money to move forward," but the overall focus of the article on CSA budget concerns suggests that there are those who doubt the official statements in this matter.

The man behind "The General." Industry Minister James Moore watches as a robotic arm performs a demonstration at the official opening of Dynamic Structures Ltd.'s expanded facility in Port Coquitlam, BC in September 2013. Dynamic has been involved in the design and construction of most of the world's largest observatories. Photo c/o Richard Lam.

The most wide ranging interview was the April 20th, 2014 Canadian Press article "Canadian Space Agency boss insists his appointment does not spell militarization," which focused on Natynczyk's previous military job and the effects it could have on his current appointment. According to the article, the government retains full confidence in Natynczyk and his abilities to manage the CSA.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Commercializing the Winners of the Space Apps Challenge

          by Brian Orlotti

In its first two years, the Toronto Space Apps Challenge, held this year at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, ON from April 11th - 13th and part of the larger NASA International Space Apps Challenge, has established itself as a crucible for the commercialization of applications leveraging NASA's extensive collection of spacecraft and science data.

The great hall of the Ontario Science Centre (OSC), home of the 2014 Toronto Space Apps Challenge. Photo c/o Brian Orlotti.

Now, one of the space hackathon’s NASA liaisons, in town over the weekend to attend and judge the Toronto event, is seeking a way to take things to the next level.

First held in 2012, the International Space Apps Challenge brings together coders, makers and entrepreneurs from around the world to form teams and solve various "challenges" developed by NASA. Over 48 hours, teams create software and hardware solutions to these challenges by leveraging NASA science data (be they from satellites, space probes or other assets).  In 2013, over 9,000 people in 83 cities across 44 countries took part. Through the challenge, NASA strives to foster innovation and make space exploration more visible and engaging to the public.

Challenges worked on this year by Toronto teams include:
  • Gravity Map - This challenge involved creating an app that shows the gravity force for any location on Earth, utilizing data from the European Space Agency (ESA) gravity field and steady-state ocean circulation explorer (GOCE). The Toronto team, composed of undergrad University of Waterloo students, decided to code their app for the Pebble smartwatch platform, which seemed appropriate since Pebble sponsored the Toronto event and provided loaner units for teams to develop on. The completed application would enable the Pebble watch to show how high you could jump at a particular spot on Earth vs other planets as well as how fast you could fall.
  • Asteroid Imagery Sharing - In this challenge, the teams designed an open-source platform for sharing crowd-sourced asteroid imagery and observed near Earth objects to enable ordinary people around the world to identify and characterize potentially dangerous asteroids. The Toronto team tackling this challenge, made up of web developers and York University Business students, developed an "AstroMap" application to harness data taken from different sources including Google Sky (which utilizes data from NASA plus amateur astronomers) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Minor Planet Center. The team envisioned their application as an educational tool for use in schools.
According to NASA open innovation program manager Beth Beck, who attended the Toronto event as a judge, the Space Apps Challenge was created by former NASA Open Innovation Program members Nicholas Skytland, Ali Llewellyn, and Sean Herron to fulfill a White House mandate (later extended to other US agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency), to make US government data available to the public for use. This released data, when promoted through mechanisms like the Space Apps Challenge, would encourage the development of a global community to drive innovation and create new uses for NASA derived data. Beck and her bosses at NASA anticipate that this "solver" community would give rise to new companies and industries, but could also be incorporated back into NASA’s own programs.

Beth Beck with author Brian Orlotti at the OSC on April 13th. 
In an interview during the Toronto event, Beck said that since the contest’s global success has proven the effectiveness of the open innovation program model, she wants to add layers of complexity to the event in order to achieve more.

For example, the length of the contest could be extended from three days to a week in order to give the teams more time to develop their projects. In addition, NASA is developing an open source software portal, similar to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) open catalog as described in the March 13th, 2014 blog post "DARPA Goes Open Source as Others Beg for Government Assistance," in order to provide a central location for the projects created by Space App Challenge teams.

Beck was asked if there was any mechanism in place to connect the winning teams with investors and intellectual property experts so as to enable them to bring their innovations to market. She stated that although NASA does not directly perform such services, NASA does send team videos to investors, provides contact lists to all contest participants and gathers the top teams to pitch their ideas on stage (“TED with teeth” as she called it). Beck also said that NASA was open to working with Canadian investors and IP experts.


She also spoke about a related initiative. Called LAUNCH, it's a partnership between NASA, the US Department of State, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and Nike. LAUNCH’s purpose is to serve as a global incubator for ideas, technologies and programs that make tangible impacts on society by connecting innovators with investors. “Innovator Speed dating,” is what Beck called it.

Drawing on her PhD studies in the ‘practice of collaboration,’ Beck provided perhaps the best insight into the Space App Challenge’s success.
Brian Orlotti.
We are messy people…creativity is messy. Order doesn’t always get you where you want to go.
Chaotic creativity and orderly execution. The International Space Apps Challenge is artistry and engineering both.
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Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).