INNOVATION January-February 2014

G eorge Tyc, P.Eng., is an aerospace engineer by training, but he sounds more like a poet or a dreamer when he discusses the two cameras that he and his colleagues at Richmond-based UrtheCast conceived and developed to mount on the International Space Station (ISS)—which orbits Earth at altitudes of 330 to 435 kilometres, 15.5 times per day or once every 92.9 minutes. The cameras will be pointed at Earth and one will produce still images while the other generates short videos. “The vision we have is to democratize the experience of seeing our planet from the perspective of space,” says Tyc, UrtheCast’s Chief Technology Officer. “Imagine you’re sitting on the space station and the world is flying by. That’s what you’ll see.” To date, only a fortunate few have enjoyed the privilege of seeing planet Earth from such a vantage point, those being the rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts from 15 countries—including Canada—who have occupied the six-person ISS non-stop since November 2, 2000. Tyc and the UrtheCast team hope to make the experience available to millions of people around the world—merely by logging on to the UrtheCast website—once the cameras begin generating images. That should happen by mid-year. A rocket- launched Russian cargo ship carrying the cameras lifted off from a cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, at 12:53 p.m. PST on December 2, 2013, and cosmonauts installed the devices during a spacewalk on December 27. However, the Mission Control Centre (MCC) just outside Moscow was unable to confirm that the cameras were receiving power and they were removed and stowed inside the space station for safety’s sake. By January 7, the cosmonauts, MCC, and engineers at RSC Energia—UrtheCast’s partner and the Russian conglomerate that manufactures spacecraft and ISS components—had determined that a cabling problem inside the ISS had caused the power failure. The cameras were re-mounted during a subsequent spacewalk on January 27, 2014. “Now we will start the commissioning campaign,” says Tyc. “We’ll thoroughly check all camera functions and characterize and tune the pointing platform. As well, we will perform calibrations on the cameras— focusing, geometric calibrations to remove image distortion and to align the cameras with the altitude sensors and gyros. We will also perform radiometric

calibrations to improve image quality and dynamic range. We expect to release initial images early this year.” When that happens, it will be a happy occasion for Tyc and his UrtheCast Co-founder Wade Lawson. They’ve spent more than three years turning a visionary idea into a reality. The notion of mounting cameras on the ISS and democratizing space, as Tyc puts it, originated while he and Lawson were working for MacDonald, Dettweiler, and Associates (MDA), the Richmond-based global communications and information company that employs some 4,500 people worldwide. MDA worked with RSC Energia on various space-related projects and both Tyc and Lawson travelled to Russia frequently for meetings with their counterparts at Energia. During some of the discussions, those at Energia let it be known that they were looking for ways to do something commercial on the space station in order to generate revenue. Tyc and Lawson began batting around ideas and they found inspiration in the most unlikely place: an eagle’s nest on Hornby Island. “Someone placed a webcam on the nest and it was just sitting there streaming live data non-stop to a website,” Tyc recalls. “For a while there was nothing much going on. Then these little chicks hatched and it was a sensation. There were literally millions of users going to this website all the time. We asked ourselves what if we could stream data down from the space station and provide this unique perspective that very few people have managed to see. If we can create that experience, surely we can interest millions of users as well. The Energia guys loved it.” Those at MDA weren’t quite as enthusiastic. In fact, the concept didn’t fit with their business model at all, in part because they didn’t see how it could be a project that generated profit. So Tyc and Lawson tried to drum up interest elsewhere. With some help from Lawson’s brother, Scott, who now serves as UrtheCast’s Chief Executive Officer, the project looked like it could take off. “He was in the business of raising money for technology companies,” says Tyc. “He had the right contacts and the right vision. He believed this could take off, so he got some seed money and off it went.” That’s putting it mildly. Tyc and Lawson gave up their corporate jobs to pursue their idea and in


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