Canadian Consulting Engineer

Training Astronauts

December 1, 2000
By Canadian Consulting Engineer

Consulting engineer: Tecsult Eduplus, MontrealThere cannot be a much more intriguing job for an engineer these days than working for Eduplus, the special education division of Tecsult in Montreal. The...

Consulting engineer: Tecsult Eduplus, Montreal

There cannot be a much more intriguing job for an engineer these days than working for Eduplus, the special education division of Tecsult in Montreal. The 130 engineers and specialists at Eduplus work on a project that combines two of the leading technologies of our age: computers and the international space program.

With Tecsult Eduplus’ President, Yvon Rodrigue, Ph.D., in charge, Eduplus has a long term contract with the Canadian Space Agency to develop multi-media training programs for astronauts from around the world. As one of its tasks, the firm has developed a software program to introduce astronauts to the new version of the Canadarm that will be used to assemble and maintain the structure of the International Space Station. The station, an international joint venture led by NASA, is already in low orbit around the earth. (The initial construction of the station was done by a small Canadarm shipped aboard the shuttle Challenger).

Collectively referred to as the Mobile Servicing System (MSS), the assembly equipment consists of three elements: the space station remote manipulator (SRMS), the mobile remote servicer base system (MBS), and the special purpose dexterous manipulator (SPDM). The new robotic arm is longer, “smarter,” and more mobile than the original Canadarm. It is around 18 metres long, and crawls around the station like an inchworm, attaching itself by a dozen grapple points. It consists of upper and lower boom arms and an end “effector.” The control centre is at the rear of the flight deck with two hand controllers — one for rotation (pitch, roll and yaw) and the second for moving the arm left, right, forward and backwards. This summer the $100 million new arm was moved to the payload of the Space Shuttle ready to be transported and installed on the station in April.

Learning to operate the Canadarm

The dangers of manipulating equipment in space were shown a year ago when a collision aboard the Russian Mir platform led to a fire and near disaster. Hence there is huge psychological and mental pressure on the astronauts when they are performing these complex manoeuvres and their preparation and training for the difficult job is critical.

Tecsult Eduplus’s team worked with Canadian Space Agency’s engineers and experts to develop the training software. There were up to 50 experts from all kinds of disciplines involved in the work at one time. The firm also engineered the multi-media learning centre at the Canadian Space Agency facility in St. Hubert, east of Montreal. Trainees who come to St. Hubert include not just the in-flight astronaut crews who manoeuvre the robotic arm, but also mission controllers, instructors and ground personnel.

The first phase of the software program is designed to give the astronauts a basic knowledge of the mobile servicing system and how robotics work. Eduplus had to create a virtual model of the robotic arm and the space station, but what complicated things was that the robotic arm was still being developed as they worked. Specifications were often not available, constantly changing and becoming out of date. The team had to synthesize huge amounts of evolving highly technical and audio-visual information, and convey all this in a user-friendly format.

The program’s content is organized as an open structure to allow the astronauts to work through it in either a linear path, or by accessing specific details directly. The software designers added a colour-coded book-marking feature to make navigation easier. The program is designed to take 11 hours.

Because the technical specifications were constantly changing, rapid prototyping was a key element of the project. It allowed the engineers quickly to design, organize and present the technical content in a format that could easily be reviewed even where there were gaps in the information.

The training software runs on both IBM-compatible and Macintosh computers. The designers used Macromedia Authorware Version 4.0 and 5.0 programs, but pushed the performance of this commercial software in order to incorporate the large number of page screens, high quality audio, video, and graphics and yet keep the program robust. They created a third visible state within Authorware in order for the astronauts to track the pages they have visited and completed. A help function was incorporated to track technical documentation on-line by accessing PDF files integrated into the software.

In the Multimedia Learning Centre where the astronauts receive instructor-led training the Tecsult Eduplus team used networked computer work stations and three large video screens capable of displaying video animations and actual monitor images from a robotic simulator of the arm. One of the large projection screens is a “smart board,” allowing the instructors and astronauts to interact on-line, and there is a set of hand controllers that can remotely operate the simulator, which is in a different room. The astronauts learn to hone their skills in the multi-media room for about 36 hours before they start training on the simulator itself and then in a virtual reality environment.

Since completing the first two $1.5 million contracts to develop the initial software program, Tecsult Eduplus has won a five-year $10 million contract with the Canadian Space Agency for phase two. The first phase showed the astronauts how to manipulate the robotic arm’s elbow, but in this second phase Tecsult is refining the program to teach the astronauts how to manipulate the delicate movements at the end of the arm.

The company is taking advantage of the expertise it has gained in this project to develop other customized “e-learning,” high-tech training programs for clients in other fields. It has, for example, entered a joint venture with CANAC/CN to develop interactive training on the web for the railway industry and has a long-term partnership with Hydro-Qubec for developing similar e-learning programs in the energy sector. — BL

Client: Canadian Space Agency

Tecsult Eduplus team members: Yvon Rodrigue

(executive director), Louis Garceau (project manager), Anne-Marie Lamarche (on-site team leader), Serge Gaudreau, Denis Gauthier, Michael Delaney, Maureen Gittens, Marie-Helene Lambert, Sharon O’Connor, Diane Minier, Mario Milmore


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