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Local grads help guide aerospace firm's relief efforts

Lorraine Graves   Sep-13-2017

MDA's RADARSAT-2 satellite collects radar information to beam back to earth for turning into data-filled images to aid disaster relief agencies, even when a disaster is hidden by cloud or cloak of night.

Image courtesy MDA Systems Ltd.


Have you ever seen an object flitting across the night sky, moving too fast to be a star but too small to be an airplane? That’s likely a satellite on its trip around the earth.

One of those dots in the heavens is RADARSAT-2, a satellite designed, built and operated by Richmond’s MDA Systems Ltd. The Richmond connection doesn’t stop there.

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BCIT’s Aerospace division, on Sea Island, is proud of their graduates who work with the firm.

In fact, over seven percent of MDA’s Richmond employees are alumni from BCIT as a whole, according to Bryan Peters, Director of Human Resources for the aerospace firm.

This satellite and the BCIT graduates who work in MDA’s Richmond base, play valuable roles in rescue and relief efforts in flood-ravaged Houston, Texas and around the world.

Hurricane Harvey flooded great portions of Houston. MDA provides information to the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other relief agencies so they are able to know exactly what’s changed during a disaster.

Gord Rigby, director of operations for MDA Geospatial Services, says the satellite is able to take extremely high resolution images from 800 kilometres in the sky.

It is roughly like taking a picture of Canada’s west coast while standing in Edmonton and being able to see if there’s a big moving truck in front of your house in Richmond.

These satellite images are not simply photographs snapped from space because, instead of light, the images use radar.

“Radar sees through clouds and smoke, so it’s weather-independent,” Rigby says. As well, a satellite that needs no light can gather images of disasters that happen at night.

Like the echo location of whales, RADARSAT-2 sends out a radar signal then listens to the echo that bounces back from every 5-metre-by-5-metre spot it checks. It gathers the information from each pixel in a 150 km by 150 km area and sends that data back to earth as computer-readable information.

Because it’s computer information, the data can be used for more than just a picture of what was where at the moment the image was taken.

For instance, by overlaying the satellite’s data from a dry day in June 2016, with a flood image taken Friday, Sept. 1 MDA’s image showed the difference. Each time the satellite passes overhead, the computer can make images that show the daily changes in a disaster.

Relief agencies can sift out even more information imbedded in RADARSAT-2 images such as which highways are flooded on any given day. That can help show safe escape routes out of and safe aid routes into the disaster.

Besides their direct contract with FEMA, MDA also provides data-filled satellite images for disasters around the world through the Canadian Space Agency as part of the international Disaster Charter.

In fact, MDA is currently providing help with another disaster, one that’s receiving little media coverage. More than 1,000 people have already died in India, Bangladesh and Nepal’s ongoing floods.

“As a result of a lot of monsoonal flooding in south east Asia, we (are tasking) the satellite in response to urgent requirements and deliver images in a quick fashion,” says Wendy Keyzer, marketing communications manager for the aerospace firm’s Information Systems Group.

MDA’s work can help save lives in a variety of natural disasters.

“It helps direct first aid and first responders to areas they need to look at first, in landslides in remote areas of the world, or in a tsunami, for example.” Rigby says. “With change detection we can say ‘wait a minute.”

By comparing before and after images, rescuers know where to direct aid first, even if the villages or homes weren’t on a map.

5 by 5 metre pixels sound large, but it’s fine enough to be useful in a disaster. “While we can’t see details inside a garage, we can see if the garage is missing,” Rigby said.

“MDA has been supporting and recruiting from Canadian universities since its inception in 1969,” Peters says. “We are very proud of the fact that the majority of our 800 Richmond-based employees are alumni from SFU, University of Victoria, BCIT, and UBC.”

So, as long as natural disasters continue to accumulate and high tech firms like MDA are needed to help the rescuers, locally-trained BCIT graduates will have a place to hang their hats.


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