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.

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

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Power-Points from the February 25th Canadian Space Agency Meeting

          by Chuck Black

The Concordia Institute of Aerospace Design and Innovation (CIADI) has posted presentations from what the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has billed as its 1st "Annual Space Summit," which was held at CSA headquarters in Longueuil, PQ, on February 25th.

As outlined on the March 24th, 2014 post on the CIADI website, the CSA event focused on the specifics of the Federal government strategy to implement Canada's space policy framework, first announced by industry minister James Moore on February 7th, 2014.

But while the broad outlines of the day's activities were well known and previously discussed in a variety of publications (including the February 24th, 2014 blog post "the Casablanca of Space Conferences"), the devil is always in the details.

Walt Natynczyk. Photo c/o CSA.
Fortunately the people responsible for filling in those details were present for the event. They included Col. Andre Dupuis, the director of space development at the Department of National Defence (DND), who spoke on the topic of Integrating Space in Canadian Forces Operations; John T. Weaver from the Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) Ottawa research centre who discussed the DRDC Space Science and Technology Program; Prashant Shukle, the director general of the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation, who assessed issues involved with Innovating to Increase the Impact of Earth Observation (EO) & Geomatics in Canada; Michael Manore, the director of monitoring strategies for the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) who assessed the Space Activities and Priorities of Environment Canada and even Walter Natynczyk, the generally publicity shy CSA president who dropped in for an overview of how the CSA intends to Implement Canada's Space Policy Framework.

The day also included workshops on a number of themes including the commercialization of government funded technologies, the development of innovation processes and key industry capabilities, the future of Canadian contributions to the International Space Station (ISS) and other space exploration initiatives, how the Federal government perceives its role in Earth observation and satellite services, how the Federal government perceives that government, industry and universities will work together to encourage innovation plus the role of stakeholder in the process and how to manage them.

A cursory reading of the day's presentations suggests an almost complete acceptance of the recommendations of the David Emerson led Aerospace Review as outlined in the December 12th, 2012 post "What the Space Volume of the Aerospace Review Actually Says." 

But there is also at least the suggestion that CSA still perceives itself as being able to manage and influence the processes related to Canadian space activities.

As outlined in the February 15th, 2010 post "Ottawa Citizen: "Where did that Long Term Space Plan Go?" that perception might just be an artifact of an earlier era.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Crimean Crisis and Canadian Aerospace Activities

          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).