Federal Election: Space spinoffs

Artist’s impression of a GPS satellite, originally from the US National Executive Committee for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing. Click through for source URL.

When we explore and develop space, we require new technologies to survive the challenges of the final frontier. Since the Golden Age of the Space Race, space funding has created interesting and important patents called “spinoffs”. This post examines some profoundly useful technologies that were derived from space investments.

Space technologies often produce medical spinoffs. Perhaps the most important are CT, CAT, and MRI scanners. The precursor to this ubiquitous medical scanning equipment, called Digital Signal Processing, was developed during the Space Race to take computer-enhanced pictures of the moon. Further scanning technologies have been spurred on by the need to remotely diagnose astronauts aboard the ISS. The Ottawa firm Mediphan developed the “DistanceDoc” and “MedRecorder”, which allow remote transfer of diagnostic-quality ultrasound images for terrestrial telemedicine applications. This is especially important to telemedicine, since it enables remote communities, developing communities, and communities who otherwise cannot afford CT or MRI machines to have diagnostic images.

A second medical technology is the “NeuroArm”, which was the result of a collaboration between then University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA). The NeuroArm allows for image-guided MR-compatible “robo” neurosurgeries. This technology was made possible by concepts developed for the Canadarm and Canadarm2, by Spar Aerospace (whose space technologies division was later incorporated into MDA).

A few space spinoffs are a little closer to home. Tempur Foam, which many people need for a good night’s rest, was the result of a NASA program to develop crash protection for airline and space shuttle passengers. Even the Safety Grooves on today’s highways began as an effort to stave off airplane accidents on wet runways. But by far the most ubiquitous space offshoot is the Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS exists because of humanity’s continual development and use of communication satellites. This worldwide network, originally developed for US military navigation, has become so important that it would be difficult to avoid using it for even a day. Individually, we no longer have to ask for directions; together, our global commerce is totally dependent on GPS.

Investing in space exploration and development can yield completely unexpected returns. These investments produce innovative technologies, many unlooked-for: when we leave this world, we produce technologies that are out of this world too. Without them, we would not sleep as well, we would not trade as efficiently, and we would not save as many lives.

Alexander Wright, alexander.wright@seds.ca

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