CSA’s smartEarth funding expands to protect endangered right whales with satellite data

Turning to space to help protect the North Atlantic right whale. Credit: Canadian Space Agency/Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and other government partners will spend up to $5.3 million on space technologies to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The smartWhales funding, announced Wednesday (Jan. 26), provided opportunities for five private-academic coalitions that will be funded for as long as 36 months each. Their work will be a test case to see if right whales can be protected from the whales’ two chief threats, which is getting snarled in fishing gear or colliding with vessels.

CSA, and government partners Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, are participating in the first federal interdepartmental initiative that will use satellite data for this purpose. smartWhales is a part of smartEarth, which uses satellite data in line with objectives from Canada’s official space strategy.

“Our work is related to response to national priorities, in this case protection and monitoring of right whales,” Steve Iris, CSA’s manager of applications and utilization, said in an interview.

The “significant” funding each coalition received, which ranges between roughly $900,000 and $1.2 million of potential opportunity, will also be helpful in the uncertain economic environment associated with the novel coronavirus pandemic, Iris said. 

“Each coalition will work on a specific project, divided into two streams – one on improving the detection and monitoring of the whales, and the other to predict and model movement,” Iris said. The five coalitions are led by Hatfield Consultants Ltd., Global Spatial Technology Solutions Inc. (GSTS),
Fluvial Systems Research Inc. (FSR), Arctus Inc., WSP Canada Inc. and include numerous organizations. You can view the full list on CSA’s website.

“The overall picture is to try and have all of these groups work together on each project,” he added. “We’re planning – as a next step – a workshop to bring together the five consortia and representatives from CSA, Fisheries and Transport. We’ll be looking for synergies, and where we can all work together in a better way.”

Turning to space to help protect the North Atlantic right whale. Credit: CSA.

Iris emphasized that the contracts are meant to further develop technology that is still at an early stage of readiness. “This is an R&D [research and development] project to see the potential of satellite data,” he said. “We’ll see at the end what we get. If at the end we have an answer for a specific question, and that answer is ‘No, this is not ready yet,’ at least we’ll have an answer.” 

smartEarth will also eventually meet a request that industry has been asking for in recent years, which is to provide a regular cadence of funding opportunities for coalitions to expect, Iris said. But that will take a while to establish, as smartEarth is still a young program.

The first acquisition of opportunity under smartEarth was announced roughly a year ago, Iris said. A fresh announcement of opportunity (AO) focused on “downstream” space applications was posted on Jan. 11 and will continue accepting applications until March 5; Iris said his team is already discussing what the next AO might focus on, although they haven’t yet picked a date for releasing it.

Protecting North Atlantic right whales. Credit: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Protecting North Atlantic right whales. Credit: Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The predecessor programs to smartEarth are still closing down, creating a busy environment for Iris and his team. smartEarth replaces the Earth Observation Application and Development Program (EOADP) for industry, the Government Related Initiatives Program (GRIP) that focused on developing government use of space-based systems and services, and the research and development focused Science and Operational Applications Research (SOAR) program that provided access to RADARSAT-2 satellite data for research and testing purposes.

CSA is completing older contracts under those three programs and transitioning everybody to the new smartEarth opportunities in the coming months and years, Iris added.

But in the meantime, Iris said the potential in smartEarth is exciting for government, academic and industry partners alike. “We’re looking forward to the results we obtain for this,” he said. “This award is a very exciting moment for the CSA and for the smartEarth initiative.”

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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