Robin A. Grant  

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Bringing Satellite Communications Down To Earth
Atlantic Business Magazine

Active since April 1, 2000, the Marine Information Skyway is the only initiative of its kind in Canada designed to encourage the development of opportunities for small and medium sized businesses through marine satellite communications applications.

The Marine Information Skyway initiative is funded through the Canadian Space Agency via the Canada Space Plan and based on a partnership between the Communications Research Centre (CRC) and the Canadian Space Agency. Funding is administered through the Communications Research Centre and delivered through the Canadian Centre for Marine Communications (CCMC). The initiative itself is administered through Seacomm, a program of the CCMC.

"The Marine Information Skyway gives small and medium sized businesses the opportunity to use existing satellite systems and future satellite designs to meet and respond to communications challenges, both in Canada and around the world," said Ronald Newhook, president and CEO of CCMC.

Currently the Marine Information Skyway initiative is helping to fund three projects. International Submarine Engineering, Ltd., signed a contract last fall with the CCMC to develop a satellite-based command and control system for a Search and Rescue Portable, Air Launchable Project. "In a search and rescue operation, this type of technology is used to navigate a boat by remote control after an aircraft drops the boat near the party to be rescued," said Dwight Howse, president of Seacomm. The project is due to be completed by the end of the summer.

Along with Telesat, TETRA, Colabnet, Marine and Mountain Zone, Marine Atlantic, CRC, the European Space Agency and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the CCMC is also assisting the Telehealth and Educational Technology Resources Agency (TETRA) of Memorial University to develop and implement a telemedicine program. The Marine Interactive Satellite Technologies (MIST) program is poised to apply the telemedicine expertise of TETRA to a wide range of commercial opportunities in both marine and remote terrestrial environments.

The CCMC also signed a contract with Quester Tangent Corporation. The project builds on existing technologies, starting with acoustic seabed classification, by providing remote monitoring and control of these shipboard systems using satellite communications. The concept grew as a result of the logistics in placing people onboard a Canadian Arctic cruise for one or two months to "baby-sit" data acquisition that requires little or no attention most of the time.

"As a ship rides over a particular area, the sonar is interpreted so as to distinguish what the bottom type is: rock, sand, mud, clay; etcetera. The bottom type can explain whether the area is suitable for a particular species of fish," said Howse. "If fish suited to that type of bottom are not present, you're left to consider what impedes them."

According to Howse, $255 thousand in funding has already been allocated to the development of marine satellite applications products and services during the initiative's first year--from April 1, 2000 to April 1, 2001. House said he predicts the same amount of funding again this year, although no projects have been finalized as of yet.

Other application areas available through the Marine Information Skyway initiative include but are not limited to: image communications/conferencing; interactive training for ship's crews; navigation applications; and offshore productions and control and monitoring.

Indeed, Newhook pointed out that the application areas for marine satellite technology are virtually limitless, since satellite technology is not limited by geographical barriers. That is, marine satellite technology can easily be used anywhere, on land or at sea. For example, the same satellite technology used to transmit to and from a medical crew on board a ship in the Atlantic Ocean could just as easily be used by a nurse in the remote north.

"The marine satellite technology application areas are broad," said Newhook. "Terrestrial technology applications make the market much broader still. It's hard to imagine how many ways this technology can be applied." According to Newhook, although the marine satellite technology is directed towards the developers of technology, the people who use it reap the biggest rewards. Newhook gave the example of extending educational support for marines at sea to include people living in remote areas on land. "This technology would allow people in remote areas to access a full range of course material and training via satellite, material and training that may otherwise have been impossible," said Newhook.

The CCMC operates as both an investor and partner in the delivery of the Marine Information Skyway initiative. Beyond its own financial, business, and technical contribution to the development of new products and services, the technical and business support staff of the CCMC will, when needed, work alongside industry partners to facilitate additional technical, financial, and in-kind support for individual projects in an effort to maximise the probability of success.

The CCMC supports the technical and commercial development of these and many other marine products and services through the use of advanced communications, navigation and information technology and the co-operation of industry and government. The CCMC is supported by the Canada/Newfoundland Agreement on economic renewal and the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland.

"When a company comes to use with an idea for development, we act as a sounding board," said Howse. "Then we use all our resources to assist them. We show them, from both a business and technical angle, how to approach the international market with a commercially viable product."

All business applications through the Marine Information Skyway are screened for basic criteria. Foremost, the CCMC emphasises that the project must have a commercial market opportunity driving it. As well, the CCMC strongly encourages the formation of industrial partnerships.

"It's the partnership that's going to bring it all together, but the CCMC will work to put the real commercial opportunity together. Our success is directly tied to the company's success," said Howse. "The small companies we deal with are generally very good with regard to technology, and they also have good ideas."

With continued funding form the Canada Space Plan and other sources, the Marine Information Skyway initiative will continue to generate growth in products and services for the marine satellite sector well past the program's closing date in Spring, 2005.