Monday, August 25, 2014

Open Source Development of Earth Imaging Data Applications

          by Chuck Black

Two recent announcements, one American and one Canadian, highlight the growing influence of open source development methodologies in the processing of Earth image data.

The first, as outlined in the August 18th, 2014 Waterloo News announcement "Waterloo makes public most complete Antarctic map for climate research," deals directly with what has until now been perceived as the esoteric core of Canadian space agency activities, RADARSAT-2 data. 

According to the article:
Thanks to a partnership between the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), the prime contractor for the RADARSAT-2 program, and the Canadian Cryospheric Information Network (CCIN) at UWaterloo, the mosaic is free and fully accessible to the academic world and the public.  
Using Synthetic Aperture Radar with multiple polarization modes aboard the RADARSAT-2 satellite, the CSA collected more than 3,150 images of the continent in the autumn of 2008, comprising a single pole-to-coast map covering all of Antarctica. This is the first such map of the area since RADARSAT-1 created one in 1997. 
Next up, at least according to the article, is a similar mosaic for Greenland, "which will provide further crucial information about our shifting climate in the northern hemisphere." There are also plans "to continue creating mosaics of Antarctica every few years to provide more data for researchers."

This RADARSAT-2 pole-to-coast Antarctic mosaic was created by MDA in cooperation with the Canadian Space Agency as part of the International Polar Year. Image c/o CSA.

The second announcement, as outlined in the August 22nd, 2014 article "NASA Picks Top Earth Data Challenge Ideas, Opens Call for Climate Apps," focuses on the NASA OpenNEX challenges. According to the article:
NASA has selected four ideas from the public for innovative uses of climate projections and Earth-observing satellite data. The agency also has announced a follow-on challenge with awards of $50,000 to build climate applications based on OpenNEX data on the Amazon cloud computing platform.
Both challenges use the Open NASA Earth Exchange, or OpenNEX, a data, cloud computing, and knowledge platform where users can share modeling and analysis codes, scientific results, information and expertise to solve big data challenges in the Earth sciences. OpenNEX provides users a large collection of climate and Earth science satellite data sets, including global land surface images, vegetation conditions, climate observations and climate projections.
These two articles are examples of the "public good" model of software development, a model championed by open source developers, whereby existing government/taxpayer needs require the paid collection of geo-spatial data and justify investment in satellites by making the data free and open for the taxpayers' benefit, which ideally leads to economic value and the creation and growth of businesses that make use of the public imagery for the greater good.

In this model, satellites, imagery and data are derived from "infrastructure," built by the government of others, which is available for all to exploit.

There is, of course, a second model, the "commodity" model whereby private companies fund the costs of satellites via sale of the data/imagery as a commodity on the open market. It is the model championed by IKONOS, GeoEye, Skybox Imaging (now owned by Google), Planet Labs along with Canada's Blackbridge (RapidEye) and UrtheCast.

This is the model the Federal government has been supporting recently, with multiple announcements of funding such as those described in the August 9th, 2014 post "Industry Minister Allocates $6.7Mln to Develop Space Apps."

It will be interesting to see which model ends up dominating the market.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Space Agency Seeks Insight into Space Industry

          by Chuck Black

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is soliciting bids of up to $250,000 CDN from "qualified suppliers" to undertake a "comprehensive socio-economic impact assessment" of the Canadian space sector.

Part of the cover of the most recent State of the Canadian Space Sector report. Since 1996, this annual document, normally released publicly in the winter, has tracked the financial impact of Canadian organizations involved in the space industry. According to the report, the 140 companies and organizations listed in the Canadian Space Directory generated $3.327Bln CDN in revenue and employed just under 8000 Canadians in 2012. It's unclear whether the new RFP will supplement or supersede the existing report.

As outlined in the Public Works and Government Services Canada website under the title Comprehensive Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of the Canadian Space Sector (9F012-140360/A), the objective of the request for proposal (RFP) is to "capture the economic argument for investment in space, as well as, demonstrate the larger socio-economic impacts that result from activity in the Canadian space sector, whether public or private."

According to the RFP, one bid will be accepted sometime after the August 28th, 2014 closing date for the contract but before October 10th, 2014 , when the preliminary "list of individuals selected for interview" and other initial documentation is scheduled to be presented to CSA for approval. 

The final, completed report is scheduled for presentation to CSA and other government officials "by January 30th, 2015."

The contract is open only to firms who've qualified under a series of restrictions relating to "consultant categories, security level, region and tier." The complete list of qualified contractors is included in the RFP and includes 168446 Canada (which operates under the name Delta Partners), 2Keys Corporation, ACF Associates Inc. ADGA Group Consultants Inc. and about fifty others. 

It will be interesting to see both what this latest CSA contract uncovers and if the new data collected under the contract will ever be released to the wider public.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Canadian Space Agency Gears up to Fund More Rovers

          by Chuck Black

After spending the month of August funding various Earth imaging applications, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is preparing to fund three rover projects costing $600K, $300K and $3.2Mln CDN.

The Argo J5 Mobility platform being demonstrated at the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies MarsDome facility on February 20th, 2014. Directly behind the orange J5 is a grey JUNO mobility platform (J1) and a J4 Rover, which is currently the basis of the Artemis Jr., the chassis of choice for the proposed NASA Resolve mission. To the left is a second ARGO J5 rover equipped with ODG’s lunar wheel prototype, optimized for harsh conditions.  Both the JUNO and Artemis Jr. Rovers were developed under a series of CSA contracts by New Hamburg based Ontario Drive and Gear (ODG). ODG is considered one of the front runners to receive the next round of Canadian rover funding. Photo c/o author.

As outlined on the Public Works and Government Services Canada website, the three "notices of tender" are as follows:
  • The ExCore small planetary rover platform (9F052-140062/A) - This is a single $600,000 CDN contract disbursed through the CSA's Exploration Core (ExCore) program for a functional, small, four wheeled planetary rover platform with skid-steering, fully passive suspension, which is manually lockable, and has a basic power system along with a power & mechanical interface to accommodate small exploration surface mobility (ESM) payloads. The tender closes on September 4th, 2014 and the period of the contract will extend from December 1st, 2014 to December 1st, 2015, which likely means that the award will be announced later this year.
  • The lunar polar rover night survival strategy (LPRNSS) concept study (9F052-140125/A) - This is a single $300,000 CDN contract, also disbursed through the CSA's ExCore program, to develop alternative heat sources for a lunar rover, with the intention of protecting the rover from the low temperatures which occur during a lunar night in the lunar polar region. This is one of the biggest challenges at the current state of unmanned lunar exploration, although, as outlined in the February 14th, 2014 article "Has China's Ailing Moon Rover Survived 2nd Lunar Night," others may have developed a solution. This tender will close on September 18th, 2014, but the period of the contract is undefined and only listed as extending from the "date of issue for a period of six (6) months."
  • The lunar rover drive-train prototype (LRPDP) platform (9F052-140053/A) - This is the big project for Canadian rover manufacturers; a $3.25Mln CDN contract, also disbursed through the CSA's ExCore program, to develop a slightly larger, but still functional lunar rover platform & drive train prototype (LRPDP), able to be subjected to rigorous testing. But you'd best hurry to apply for this; the tender closes on August 29th, 2014 and the period of the contract is listed as being from September 22nd, 2014 to December 18th, 2015.
As outlined most recently in the October 20th, 2012 post "Lots and Lots of Rovers Looking for Missions," the last round of funding for the Canadian rover program was part of the 2009 Economic Action Plan, which allocated $110Mln CDN over three years to the CSA for development of the next generation Canadarm (which received $53.1Mln CDN) and for Canadian rovers (which received most of the rest). The CSA funding for the Canadian rovers ran out on March 31st, 2012.

It's unlikely that the latest round of rover funding will be enough to fund a completely new rover. So expect the winner of the current tenders to end up being some of the same organizations which ended up being funded in the last funding round. 

Tech Titans Bringing the Silicon Valley Mindset to the Space Industry

          by Brian Orlotti

Chuck Hull. Photo c/o Industry Week.
Over the the past decade, the building momentum of commercial space initiatives has seen a variety of new players enter the space sector. Often, these new participants are leaders in their fields. Now, 3D printing pioneer 3D Systems is getting into the space business by acquiring two firms with solid track records in that sector.

Rock Hill, SC based 3D Systems was founded in 1986 in Valencia, CA, by Chuck Hull, inventor and original patent-holder of the first stereolithography (SLA) based 3D printing system. The companies' industrial 3D printers utilize a variety of technologies including SLA, selective laser sintering (SLS) and fused deposition modelling (FDM). The company also invented the STL file format, now the de facto standard for 3D printers. 3D Systems caters to many industries, including automotive, architectural, dental/healthcare, and aerospace and defence. With $353Mln USD ($384Mln CDN) in revenue in 2012, the firm currently employs over 1000 people in 25 offices worldwide.

As stated in the August 13th, 2014 article "3D Systems Corporation Buys Sister Companies APP and APM," 3D Systems has been on an aggressive  shopping spree over the past four years, acquiring over 45 companies totaling some $520Mln USD ($566Mln CDN).

Its newest purchases are two Tulsa, Oklahoma-based sister companies:  American Precision Prototyping (APP) and American Precision Machining (APM), both of which have strong aerospace backgrounds. Both APP and APM are providers of rapid prototyping/manufacturing, product development and engineering services to a clientele that includes Boeing, EADS, Cessna, Black & Decker, NASA and General Electric. Both companies have over 24 years of experience in these areas. The cost and details of the dual acquisitions have not been made public.

3D Systems' acquisition of APP and APM will allow the company to expand its presence in a niche where it had previously been small. 3D Systems will now be positioned to offer 3D prototyping and additive manufacturing services to not only large established entities like Boeing and NASA, but also newer space players like SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, and Orbital Sciences Corporation.

3D Systems' recent moves parallel those of another technology giant: Google.

Back in June, Google bought Skybox Imaging, an Earth-observation satellite builder and data provider, for $500Mln USD ($544Mln CDN) in cash. In April, the company purchased Titan Aerospace, a maker of solar-powered drones. As well, in December 2013, Google turned many heads with its purchase of DARPA-affiliated robotics firm Boston Dynamics. These purchases are part of Google's long-term goal of becoming a provider of internet access (via satellites & drones) as well as services.

Most significantly, space lies at the core of Google's plans for growth.

3D Systems' and Google's acquisition strategies share two key commonalities: the acquisitions' products enhance their own (i.e 3D Systems' aerospace presence and Google's Maps and Earth software) and they provide an entry point into expanding new markets (i.e nano/micro-satellites, space-related services like Earth imagery and Internet access for the developed/developing world).

Brian Orlotti.
In entering the space business, these two tech titans seek to bring the Silicon Valley mindset to a long-static industry.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.