Space is the next frontier for Communitech, which will lead a multimillion-dollar effort to commercialize marine shipping data gathered by Ontario-built satellites.

The project, called Intelligent Media Networks (IMN), was announced Thursday at the Communitech Hub by local MPs Stephen Woodworth and Peter Braid. It is part of a $10.4-million package of funding from FedDev Ontario’s Technology Development Program for four area technology firms.

As one of those firms, Communitech will receive $6.4 million – an amount that will be matched by public and private-sector partners – to work with Cambridge-based exactEarth Ltd. and the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) to build, launch and mine real-time data from two new satellites.

exactEarth will receive up to $2.49 million in FedDev funds to upgrade its satellite data gathering and processing capabilities.

The small, low-orbit satellites, the first of which is expected to launch from India this summer, will collect information from the estimated 100,000 ships traversing international waters daily. The first satellite will weigh seven kilograms, while the second will be roughly twice that weight.

The project will also explore future applications of this micro-satellite technology for monitoring of carbon, water levels and data security.

In partnership with public and private partners including Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, several Ontario universities, Google and other companies, Communitech will co-ordinate efforts to monetize the information and build software applications around it.

In addition to creating more than 200 highly-skilled jobs in and around Waterloo Region by 2014, the project aims to build a cluster of satellite-related companies in a similar way to how Communitech has helped to build a network of 800-plus technology companies since its founding in 1997.

“This project is the spark that starts a fire of cluster-building activity around this technology in southern Ontario,” said Glenn Smith, Communitech’s director of digital media projects, who will lead the IMN’s project management committee.

exactEarth is a subsidiary that spun off four years ago from Cambridge-based satellite-maker COM DEV, one of Waterloo Region’s cornerstone technology companies. The ship-tracking capabilities of its micro-satellites piggyback on a pre-existing technology known as AIS, or Automatic Identification System, Sunil Chavda, COM DEV’s corporate development director, said in an interview with Communitech.

AIS is a wireless data exchange system, mandatory on all ships more than 300 tons, that notifies ships’ crews when other vessels are nearby. exactEarth developed a way to detect all of these highly localized AIS signals from space and gather them together – about one million messages per day, Chavda said – using its satellites.

This massive amount of information on where ships have been, where they’re going and what they do at sea represents a potential goldmine for those who can find uses for the information.

“Right now we are already selling the data to the Canadian goverment and all the other governments around the world; commercial users,” Chavda said. “It’s anything from fisheries monitoring, illegal fishing, tracking ships that could be doing something illegal, such as dumping”, or deviating from its course to conduct illegal trafficking.

Customs authorities are also interested in where a ship has been before it arrives in port, so that they can direct their inspection efforts appropriately, he said.

Through the IMN project with Communitech, entrepreneurs will have an opportunity to imagine new and unanticipated uses for the data, Chavda said.

“The beauty is, when you’re working with some of the startups and people who are not close to this, they will probably come up with something that we who are too close to it don’t even think about,” he said. “The idea is to engage more people as part of this program to say, ‘OK, we have all this data; what else can we do with it?'”

In addition to the $6.4 million for Communitech’s oversight of IMN, FedDev today pledged:

–       $542,399 to Kitchener-based TribeHR to accelerate commercialization of its human resource management software

–       $925,000 to Waterloo’s Dejero Labs Inc. to further develop its technology to transmit live video from mobile devices in high-definition.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
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Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.