Next Generation Automatic Identification System Satellites to be Developed under Communitech Program

Communitech, Waterloo Region’s commercialization hub for digital media, signed a contract with SFL today that will have the lab develop next generation Automatic Identification System (AIS) satellites for industrial partner exactEarth Inc.  The “DATA.BASE” program at Communitech is funded by a $6.4M award from FedDev Ontario that covers not only innovative AIS satellite development but also other emerging research and development opportunities in the areas of quantum key distribution and water resource monitoring, among others.  The project is about generating data that can be commercialized as a service to end users.  SFL’s portion of the DATA.BASE project involves developing EV9, a 7-kilogram nanosatellite with a next generation AIS receiver for maritime monitoring at low latitudes.  SFL is also responsible for developing a small microsatellite design called “ADS-4” and associated technologies for more data intensive missions.  EV9 will be completed and launched in 2014 and will help to expand commercial markets in AIS data for exactEarth.

The UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory is replete with components workers assembling microsatellites. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Dr. Robert Zee inside the mission control room at the UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory in Toronto. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Workers inside the Space Flight Laboratory at UTIAS. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

The UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory employs 30 full-time workers and 13 graduate students who assemble and test microsatellites. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Dr. Robert Zee inside the UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory in Toronto. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Dr. Robert Zee explains the work of his team at the UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory as members of the Communitech IMN team look on. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Dr. Robert Zee explains the work of his team at the UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory as members of the Communitech IMN team look on. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Lab coats inside the UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory in Toronto.(Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Dr. Robert Zee, director of the UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

This small satellite is similar to one to be launched as part of Communitech’s IMN project. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

By Anthony Reinhart,

The first things you notice upon entry to the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratory are the bright flecks twinkling against the inky blackness – in the granite floors, not the sky. This is, after all, an Earth-bound facility, though its work is all about space.

It is here that Canada’s academic, business and government partners are collaborating to create cheaper, quicker-to-launch space missions using small satellites – one of which involves Communitech’s new Intelligent Media Networks (IMN) project.

In February, FedDev Ontario awarded $6.4 million to Communitech, Waterloo Region’s commercialization hub for digital media, to oversee a project to monetize marine shipping data gathered by satellites built at the UTIAS lab in Toronto.

Communitech will use the funds, to be matched by public and private-sector partners, to work with Cambridge, Ont.-based exactEarth and UTIAS to build, launch and mine real-time data from the two small satellites.

On March 28, Communitech’s IMN team travelled to the UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory for a tour led by Dr. Robert E. Zee, its director throughout its 15-year history. Zee oversees 30 full-time staff and a complement of 13 graduate students.

“We get the box as small as possible so that it’s easier to launch, less costly to launch, and we do this for organizations around the world,” Zee told the group as they stood in the brightly-lit lab, its many work tables covered with circuit boards, wires and other components.

Those organizations include universities, governments, “anyone who needs a small satellite,” Zee said. “Otherwise, we’d have a hard time getting into the space arena, so we’ve lowered the entry barrier for people needing data from space.”

Compared to 2003 when it launched its first microsatellite, which was Canada’s first space telescope, the lab now has six satellites in orbit, 10 more under construction “and lots of interest from all over the world,” he said.

All have been in the microsatellite range, meaning each weighed less than 100 kilograms, and most have been under 10 kilograms, qualifying as nanosatellites.

“The smallest was about 3.5 kilograms, so the size of a small milk carton,” Zee said, adding that the size of a satellite is sometimes dictated by the amount of space available on the rockets from which they are deployed.

The first Communitech satellite, to be sent into space from India later this year, will weigh seven kilograms, and the second will clock in at about 15 kilograms.

Once in space, the satellites will occupy a low orbit (below 1,000 kilometres in altitude) and gather real-time data exchanged between the estimated 100,000 ships at sea around the world on any given day. The ship-to-ship data is shared through technology called the Automatic Identification System, which alerts marine crews with the location and other details of other vessels nearby.

exactEarth, a four-year-old subsidiary of Cambridge-based satellite maker COM DEV, is receiving up to $2.49 million in FedDev funds to update the satellite data-gathering and processing capabilities for the Communitech IMN project.

Communitech, which boasts a 1,000-company network of tech firms, will work with exactEarth, UTIAS, the Insititute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo and a host of other institutions across Ontario to find new applications for the data gathered, and for the technology. Future uses could include monitoring of atmospheric carbon and global water levels.

During the UTIAS lab tour, a microsatellite similar to one of the two IMN units was clearly visible behind the glass of a clean room, where the people who assemble them work to exacting standards – for obvious reasons.

“We can’t fix anything once it’s in space,” Zee explained, “so we need to get it right the first time.”

UTIAS lab workers also build XPODs – ejection systems that fling the satellites into space, jack-in-the-box style, from their launch vehicles – to the custom requirements of each satellite launch.

Zee said the small satellites are typically designed for one to three years of service in orbit, but some continue to collect valuable scientific data for five or 10 years post-launch.

Of the many stages of testing each satellite goes through, one of the last is the thermal vacuum chamber, which “simulates the environment of space” by producing the vacuum and coldness of space, using a liquid nitrogen shroud that wraps around the chamber.

Alternatively, infrared lamps are used to simulate the level of solar heat a satellite will experience from its particular position in orbit, Zee said.

From there, the tour continued to the mission control room.

“It’s a small room; it’s not like Cape Canaveral or anything like that,” Zee said. “You don’t need a big room to do what we need to do. This room is really just screens, computers and software.”

Ground stations in other locations relay the signals from the control room to the satellites, he said.

During an interview after the tour, Zee said his interest in aerospace was sparked when he was an undergraduate student in the University of Waterloo’s systems design engineering program – a program that has, incidentally, produced some of Waterloo Region’s most successful startup entrepreneurs.

“I went to Waterloo mainly because of their co-op program,” Zee said. “It gave me the opportunity to get work experience before graduation, and also earn some money to pay for my education.”

He went on to study at UTIAS, earning a master’s degree in 1994 and his PhD in 1997.

“At about the time I was graduating, I had the opportunity to form a new lab and work on Canada’s first microsatellite, and Canada’s first space telescope, called MOST (for Microvariability and Oscillations of STars),” he said.

When MOST launched in 2003, the lab “didn’t really have a plan for the future,” since it had been established just for that one project, Zee said. “We found ourselves without any work, so we had to develop our own business plan.”

Since it had developed expertise in building a small, low-cost satellite, “I decided to get us involved with these nanosatellites that were just coming up at the time,” he said.

Today, with six satellites in orbit, another 10 in production and interest from around the world, the strategy has proven to be an effective one – and the Communitech IMN project marks another step in the lab’s evolution.

“With Communitech, we now are part of a network of organizations that can contribute to this Intelligent Media Networks project,” Zee said, “so there are even more possibilities there for new collaborations in new areas.”

In addition to tapping into Communitech’s network of technology companies in southwestern Ontario, UTIAS sees the IMN project as a chance to raise awareness of its capabilities across Canada and around the world.

“Raising awareness…creates opportunity; it creates new mission ideas, new ideas for data services, new ideas for approaching government with specific mission concepts, or even foreign customers,” Zee said.

“So, potentially there could be a new partnership established as the result of a Communitech connection, whereby UTIAS Space Flight Lab partners with one of these other organizations that are part of Communitech, and we go after some international opportunity that we wouldn’t have otherwise gone after.”

In other words, the future looks bright.

“I can see a lot of potential there,” Zee said.


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