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More Canadian Tech for the Space Technology Hall of Fame

Posted April 21, 2014 by Chuck Black

          by Brian OrlottiTwo 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 agr…

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Commercializing the Winners of the Space Apps Challenge

Posted April 14, 2014 by Chuck Black
          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.


Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

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The Crimean Crisis and Canadian Aerospace Activities

Posted April 7, 2014 by Chuck Black
          by Brian Orlotti

Russia’s recent annexation of the Crimea region of the Ukraine has caused repercussions in at least two Canadian space and aerospace firms.

As outlined in the April 24th, 2013 Broadband TV News article, “Satellite Viewing Grows in the Ukraine,” the use of satellite downloads is now the most popular way to access television signals in the Ukraine. Until recently, the region has been considered a high growth area for international firms focused on supplying satellite technology.

As reported in the April 1st, 2014 Canadian Press article “MDA suspends ground work in Ukraine satellite program,” BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) has invoked the “force majeure” clause in a contract for ground infrastructure facilities for the Ukrainian communication satellite program because of the country’s political instability.

According to the article, the work is expected to be delayed four to six months and the final costs
Oleksandr Zinchenko. Photo c/o Wikipedia.

associated with the stoppage are “yet to be determined.” 

Of course, MDA possesses substantial business interests in this area and no one knows the long-term effects of a delay in the program. 
As outlined in the December 15th, 2009 SpaceRef Canada article, “MDA To Build Communication Satellite System for Ukraine,” the original deal was signed in 2009 for $254Mln USD ($279Mln CDN) and was believed to be the beginning of a long-term and profitable relationship. 
According to Oleksandr Zinchenko, then the director-general of the National Space Agency of the Ukraine (NSAU), “‘we are very excited for this contract award, which is the first major step in a long-term strategic partnership between NSAU and MDA in the fields of satellite communications and Earth observation.

But MDA isn’t the only Canadian company dealing with the challenges of the latest crisis. According to the March 21st, 2014 Canadian Press article, “Bombardier Russian venture at risk over Crimea crisis,” the current situation could also hamper the attempt at Dorval based Bombardier Aerospace to finalize a joint venture with Russian state-owned defense firm ROSTEC (formerly Rostekhnologii) to build Q400 turboprop aircraft in Russia.

Pierre Beaudion. Photo c/o CBC.

In August 2013, Bombardier signed a letter of intent to sell up to 100 Q400 turboprops valued at about $3.4Bln USD ($3.74Bln CDN). The company had also reached a tentative deal to setup a turboprop assembly line in Russia and was expecting to sign final agreements this year. Bombardier has also been courting various Russian airlines, moving into what it sees as a huge untapped market. In 2013, Russian aircraft leasing company Ilyushin Finance Co. agreed to purchase at least 32 Bombardier flagship CSeries jets in a deal valued at about $2.56 billion USD. 

According to Bombardier CEO Pierre Beaudoin:
For Bombardier, Russia is not that big today, but it’s a very large potential country. Like many international companies we are going to follow this very closely.

Bombardier expects the CSeries to contribute $5-8 billion USD a year in new revenue later this decade, as Beaudoin told analysts and investors in New York on March 20th.

But Beaudoin was also unable to say how long these deals could reasonably be delayed, citing uncertainty over whether the situation in Crimea will escalate.

Of course, other Canadian firms have continued working with Russia with little or no disruption. Despite the trepidation and uncertainty, some are even saying the effects of the Crimean situation are mostly symbolic and won’t cause long-term damage. 

For example, as outlined in the April 5th, 2014 eCanada Now article “Canadian company broadcasting HD feeds of Earth not affected by Russian aggression against the Ukraine,” Vancouver based UrtheCast Corp., which recently worked with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to mount two HD cameras aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and send images back to Earth, continues to work with Russia, often sending their engineers there.
Scott Pace testifies during a Senate appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on March 5th, 2014. The hearing dealt with national security space launch programs. Photo c/o Pete Marovich/Bloomberg.

The April 3rd, 2014 Guardian article “NASA cuts ties with Russia over Ukraine crisis, except for space station,” went further when it quoted Scott Pace,director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs, as saying that it was noteworthy that co-operation relating to the ISS remained intact.

Pace also said that there would likely be disruptions for NASA scientists who exchange data or work on experiments with Russian researchers, but while the communications ban applies to direct communication between NASA and Roscosmos, it does not include meetings attended by Russia and other countries.

Chris Hadfield. Photo c/o Chris Young/CP.
As for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), its keeping to business as usual, at least for now. 
The April 4th, Toronto Sun article “Canadian Space Agency keeping ties with Russia for now,” has even referenced a Friday CSA statement which read, “while the government views the current situation in the Ukraine with great concern, the Canadian Space Agency will continue to work with its Russian counterpart to ensure the safe and effective operation of the International Space Station.”

The article also quoted retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who said that space agencies must often work together through disputes, small and large:

It would be great if everybody was always together on everything, but we surely aren’t. This isn’t the only area of dispute between nations. Canada and the U.S. have areas that we dispute all the time, and yet we co-operate on most things.

Brian Orlotti.

Hadfield’s words doubtless reflect the desire of many to see space continue to be a force for bringing people and nations together through commerce and science rather than the ideological battleground of the past.

Let’s sit back for awhile and see where that takes us…


Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

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High School Students Compete in Robotics Competition

Posted March 7, 2014 by Chuck Black
          by Sarah Ansari-Manea

Robots at the ready! Photo c/o FRC.

This month, hundreds of high school students are coming together to participate in the annual FIRST Robotics Waterloo Regional Competition, which will be held from March 21st – 23rd at the University of Waterloo.

Over 30 competition teams will design and build robots to compete for their schools and for a chance at a berth at the FRC World Championship, which will be held from April 23rd – 26th in St. Louis, MO.

As outlined on the FRC website, every January some 2,500 teams across the world join together to watch the unveiling of the new season’s robotic challenge, which will be attempted by high school teams across the world and culminate in the FRC World Championship.

Back when I participated with my high school team, “the Pace Invaders,” the competitions allowed us to create and construct robots that do anything from climb, throw balls, to hang inflatable shapes in particular orders and locations.

Normally broadcast on NASA TV, this year’s challenge, called “Aerial Assist,” merges some old challenges with many new. Two teams, of three robots each, will be competing on a 25’ x 54’ foot field. On either side there are a set of goals, high and low, with a point system depending on the height of the goal, as well as the number of passes between robots to score the goal.

As usual, there is a 10 second autonomous period prior to the match, where robots are pre-programmed to score on their own. Bonus points are given throughout the match for passing and scoring goals across a truss in the center of the field. In general, this year’s challenge is meant to push teamwork between the robots and drivers, where higher bonus points are scored when more than one team has interacted with the ball prior to scoring.

The events are organized through the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), which was founded in New Hampshire in a high school gym and now spans across 13 countries worldwide.

The playing field. Graphic c/o FRC.

Established in 2001, FIRST Robotics Canada is a registered charity that strives to inspire students to be open and excited about science, technology, and engineering. With many high end sponsors, and $3 million from the government of Ontario in 2004 to spread across the province, they now have close to 10,000 participating students, from over 100 teams across the country.

According to Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST, the object of the organization is “to transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”

FIRST also has an elementary Lego League, allowing the engagement of younger students in a safe and effective way. Much like the Robotic Competition, the Lego League has thousands of students and mentors across the nation, engaging more and more youth every year.

Sarah Ansari-Manea.

Participating in the FIRST Robotics Competitions several years ago taught me countless, unforgettable lessons, from teamwork to the advanced technology of modern day robotics. I can thank my love of technology, in part, to some of these wonderfully ran science outreach organizations, FIRST being high up on the list.

Sarah Ansari-Manea is an aspiring astrophysicist, currently completing a specialist in physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto.

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Canadian Firm Plans to Corner the Worldwide Rover Chassis Market

Posted February 24, 2014 by Chuck Black

          by Chuck Black

A Canadian company which developed a modular lunar rover chassis with the help of a 2008 Canadian Space Agency (CSA) grant is planning to corner the worldwide terrestrial market for extraterrestrial rovers, but the original plan to send one to the rovers to the Moon is currently on hold due to a lack of funding.

The Argo J5 Mobility platform being demonstrated at the UTIAS MarsDome on February 20th. 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, beginning in 2008. 

At least that’s the plan outlined by Peter Visscher, the space and robotics manager for New Hamburg based Ontario Drive and Gear (ODG) during a February 20th, 2014 public presentation at the MarsDome, a 1,100 square metre, fully enclosed testing facility modified to simulate an extraterrestrial surface, located at the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) North York campus.
Visscher was promoting what he called “pre-production” models of the new Argo J5 Mobility platform. The platforms, generally known as rovers, will be built for educational institutions interested in testing tools for planetary research using real world, or maybe real “off-world” conditions. 
To facilitate this, the rover chassis utilizes a standard control area network (CAN Bus) interface, open API‘s to facilitate plug-in third party autonomous guidance software and standardized hardware attachment points, something which Visscher calls a “lego style” design. The easy attachment for both hardware and software is designed to encourage the parallel development of the various modules required for academic research and to speed up the development cycle.
An interior shot of the ARGO J5, showing available space along with the standardized bolt holes and attachment points. The J5 measures 1.52 metres x 1.38 metres x .83 metres (H) and weighs 250kg. It’s amphibious, maintenance free once deployed and can carry 250 kg at a top speed of 20km/h on land and 4km/h on water. 
There’s lots of academics and researchers looking to work with autonomous vehicles and the ARGO J5 gives them a modular, configurable and low cost chassis for their experiments so that they don’t need to reinvent their wheels from scratch,” said Visscher, during an interview after the presentation. 
ARGO ATV. Photo c/o ODG.
According to Visscher, the academic market is just the first step in a wider release. Potential markets for the J5 include military, mining, recreational and other areas.
The new rovers will use the same service network as the firm’s ARGO all terrain vehicle, which is presently sold and supported in 80 countries throughout the world.

But of course, since the J5 rover derived from earlier development work on Moon rovers, it’s only natural that Visscher doesn’t just want to see ODG rovers marketed to meet terrestrial demands.

He wants to send them to the Moon which seems perfectly reasonable given their genesis. 
Artemis Jr. rover. Photo c/o CSA.
As outlined in the November 18th, 2013 Ottawa Citizen post “NASA wants to drive Ottawa-designed rover on the moon,” a Canadian rover, based around an ODG design was originally developed as a core component of a proposed NASA mission to hunt for water on the Moon in 2017.

The Artemis Jr. rover currently favored by NASA for the mission is the product of a group of Canadian companies including Ottawa based COM DEV International and Neptec Design Group, Sudbury based Deltion Innovations and Sherbrooke based NGC Aerospace. But the chassis is designed and built by the same ODG team which went on to build the J5 rover. 

Of course, as outlined in the February 5th, 2014 post “Canadian Government Funds Proposed Lunar Drill” the NASA mission is currently unfunded and would require a “landing vehicle,” which the US would first need to design, fund and then construct. NASA doesn’t even have the money to pay for the rover and has asked the CSA to fund further development.

CSA has so far only offered up an undisclosed amount to develop the Deltion drill component of the payload, but has not yet offered up any money to fund any further rover chassis development.
Visscher is hopeful that this could change given the appropriate public support. While his firm would likely benefit from the acquired flight heritage accrued through the proposed NASA mission, it’s quite likely that ODG will make money no matter what CSA and NASA end up doing. 

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