If your company designs, engineers and manufactures mission-critical, state-of-the-art space equipment that’s been to Mars, the International Space Station and, in 2018, the asteroid Bennu, the most obvious next frontier might not be the University of Calgary’s Foothills Hospital. Yet for Macdonald Dettwiler and Associates, Canada’s largest space technology company and maker of the iconic Canadarm, the hospital is the scene of one its most successful, recent breakthroughs: a two-armed robotic operating tool designed for use inside an MRI.
To date, the “neuroArm” has done more than 60 operations. The system allows neurosurgeons to see real-time MRI imagery of areas of the brain while operating on them remotely. An idea that originated with University of Calgary professor and hospital neurosurgeon Dr. Garnette Sutherland, was funded with regional grants and local donations, and was brought to life by MDA in its Brampton, Ont., lab, testing and manufacturing facility, the neuroArm is a medical and scientific marvel. It’s also a textbook example of the promise that the Canadian space industry sees in developing “terrestrial applications” for their space-based technology and expertise, to help diversify and stabilize their businesses.
In MDA’s case, the neuroArm is a direct technological descendant of Dextre, a much-larger MDA service robot now fixed to the outside of the International Space Station. “This is probably the best example of taking the [robotics] technology that we have in Dextre and transferring that to an on-the-ground application,” says Tim Reedman, MDA’s director of terrestrial business, on a tour through the Brampton operation.
From a business standpoint, the device is only the first step. The University of Calgary, which held the rights to the neuroArm technology, subsequently sold it to a private MRI manufacturer, Imris. MDA, which knows the system better than anyone, is now working with Imris on a second-generation, commercial version of the technology. As the market expands, so does MDA’s potential payoff.
Meanwhile, back in the lab, MDA adapted the concept and technology to create an MRI/surgical robot combo to do breast biopsies. Human trials for that one are just beginning. Beyond the medical field, Reedman says the company’s key skill sets are finding applications in underground mine mapping, automated manufacturing, the nuclear power industry, and supporting first responders in chemical, biological and radiological emergencies. “Diversifying is important to us,” he says.
In this, MDA is not alone. In Ottawa, Neptec Design Group, whose credits include a laser-based navigation system now being rolled out on the Cygnus series of autonomous shuttles serving the International Space Station, is a smaller but highly successful space technology firm. According to Mike Kearns, Neptec’s president of space systems, the company made “a business decision that to fuel more growth, we really need to get more mileage out of this technology in other markets.” To do so, it’s created a separate division, Neptec Technologies Corp.
Kearns says this evolution starts with the structure of the Canadian space sector, where the Canadian Space Agency typically funds development of an initial technology, the first of its kind for a specific space project. Beyond that, says Kearns, “it’s in everyone’s interests, CSA’s and ours, to find other programs. It could be with commercial companies for space or it could be terrestrial versions of the product, finding other applications on the ground.”
One of Neptec’s most successful terrestrial spinoffs to date is a rover vehicle, a version of which is now in development for a NASA trip to the moon, to explore for water. Neptec equips its Earth-bound version with a laser sensor that conducts 360-degree scans of its surroundings, “similar to what Google does” with its Street View cameras/service, says Kearns. Neptec’s market in this case, however, is the mining sector. “They found a niche market for this kind of sensor,” he says, using it to scan/map hard-to-access mine interiors.
Neptec’s moon rover mission still has a few hurdles to cross before it’s officially a go, but Kearns is already thinking about possible future applications here on Earth if it succeeds. Again, it’s the mining sector that has the most potential. The company’s moon rover comes with a drill to probe the lunar surface. That drill was made for Neptec by a Sudbury, Ont., mining technology firm called Deltion. “If it does goes forward, we’ll have a lot of spinoff technology that will have terrestrial uses,” says Kearns.
Interestingly, rovers and other types of autonomous vehicles factor into the future terrestrial plans of both MDA and Neptec.
MDA’s Reedman says that in this regard, they have quite a lot in common with companies like Google and a few global carmakers, which are working on driverless cars and trucks. If there’s a main difference, Reedman laughs, it’s that the space companies have “generally a lot less time spent in how to deal with traffic.”
One of the vehicles present in the MDA Brampton facility during Reedman’s tour is a self-driving, four-wheel buggy that the company created in partnership with Bombardier Recreational Products. The first version, whose development was funded by the CSA, was a planned astronaut vehicle. While that project hit a dead end, Bombardier has since taken the technology and created an electric all-terrain vehicle that’s now commercially available.
In the long run, meanwhile, Reedman thinks the biggest share of space tech spinoffs will likely find their way into the manufacturing sector. “A lot of robotics involves seeing if a computer can identify an object of interest, pick it up and use it to do something,” he says. Ultimately, those steps can translate into all kinds of manufacturing actions. Reedman also says he’s encouraged in that he’s seeing a much greater level of interest in robotics and other advanced manufacturing technologies on the part of Canadian manufacturers today than he did 10 years ago. “That’s a big change,” he says. “And that will be an opportunity for us.”