Launching new innovations to the sky and beyond: 2022–⁠2023 annual report

Canada has long been recognized as a leader in aerospace and astronomy research and technology, home to unique research, development, innovation and testing capabilities and incredible talent. NRC facilities across the country are supporting that role and helping deliver innovative solutions to global challenges.

A state-of-the-art airborne laboratory

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Mengistu Wolde, Principal Research Officer, Flight Research Lab, Aerospace Research Centre

Short video of Mengistu Wolde posing in front of an NRC aircraft inside of a hangar.

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Mengistu Wolde, Principal Research Officer, Flight Research Lab, Aerospace Research Centre

Short video of Mengistu Wolde posing in front of an NRC aircraft inside of a hangar.

The Convair 580 is the largest aircraft in the NRC's fleet. A multi-purpose airborne laboratory, it houses the equipment needed to support research on atmospheric conditions, icing, cloud physics, smog and more.

While the aircraft will remain in high demand until its decommissioning in 2028, its age makes maintenance and repairs increasingly challenging. Mengistu Wolde is a principal research officer with the Aerospace Research Centre who was facility manager for the Convair 580 and is now the scientific research lead spearheading the launch of its replacement: the new Medium-range Aircraft Platform for Environmental Research (MAPLE).

"The Convair is a unique facility in Canada and has supported a wide range of research projects involving partners from all over the world. One of our biggest accomplishments from the past year was the completion of the High Spectral Resolution Airborne Microwave Sounder (HiSRAMS) project with McGill University, Omnisys of Sweden, Horizon Sciences and Technologies in Nova Scotia, and the European Space Agency (ESA).

The project started in 2018 as a proof of concept to develop 2 advanced airborne hyperspectral radiometers for future space missions requiring global observations of temperature and water vapour. The NRC and our collaborators successfully developed the radiometers, integrated them on the Convair, and conducted flight data collection and modelling.

We also deployed to the U.S. for 3 weeks to support a large international climate and weather study project called ESCAPE, and worked with European Union partners on advanced radar studies to inform the ESA's WIVERN satellite mission concept, aimed at providing global observation of winds from space.

Working with the Convair since I joined the NRC in 2000 has been a real privilege, and now I'm looking forward to working with the new MAPLE aircraft, which will be built with the federal renewal funding. The new plane will have a longer range so we can do more research in remote areas like in the North, and its capabilities will be developed with input from many stakeholders to make sure it's flexible and versatile enough to handle an even wider range of research needs. When MAPLE enters into service, it will be equipped to study climate change, air quality, cloud systems and severe weather, all of which will help prove out new solutions for green aviation, space-based observation and so much more."

"The new plane is being designed with input from many stakeholders to make sure it's flexible and versatile enough to handle an even wider range of research needs."

Made-in-Canada correlators to see farther into the cosmos

In January 2023, Canada announced its intention to become a full member of the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), an international collaboration building 2 of the world's largest telescope arrays in Australia and South Africa.

Membership in SKAO will give access to the array for Canadian astronomers, and it provides an opportunity for several Canadian companies to contribute to building and assembling various parts of the array.

The Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre played a lead role in developing the correlators, which help coordinate the many individual telescopes and enable data from across the array to be correlated and analyzed.

Seeking new insights into the formation of the universe

When the James Webb Space Telescope launched in December 2021, it included several Canadian-made components and instruments.

One of these, the near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph (NIRISS), was the first of the telescope's 4 science instruments to be declared fully science-ready on June 22, 2022.

Since then, NRC teams have had the opportunity to study the history of distant galaxies, the formation of exoplanets, black holes and more.

A step toward autonomous flight

In early 2022, a team at the Aerospace Research Centre started the first phase of flight trials for a self-flying helicopter.

Later that year, the team achieved its very first completely autonomous flight, involving takeoff, flight manoeuvring around a planned circuit and landing—including avoiding several obstacles in the landing zone.

While there are still many steps before fully autonomous flight becomes feasible on a larger scale, this flight represents a significant milestone in support of that goal.

Adapting to flight conditions with integrated reality

In partnership with the Department of National Defence, the Aerospace Research Centre is using integrated reality to better understand helicopter piloting conditions when performing operations at sea.

The Integrated Reality In-Flight Simulation (IRIS) project uses the unique capability of the Bell 412 helicopter to be programmed to behave and react like different aircraft.

That allows test pilots to experience how wind, turbulence and other conditions would affect the types of aircraft actually used for offshore military operations.

This will provide a better understanding of pilot workload so flight simulators can be made more accurate, ship designs can be enhanced and crews can be kept safer.

New solutions for handling in-flight hazards

Our Aerospace Research Centre is working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to learn more about in-flight icing conditions and to test innovative icing detection, forecasting and de-icing solutions.

Last year, using the Convair 580 aircraft equipped with more than 40 probes and sensors, our Airborne Facilities for Atmospheric Research and Reconnaissance team flew in hazardous icing conditions to collect data and demonstrate new weather forecasting capabilities.

This project will provide vital information to help pilots manage dangerous conditions that can impair aircraft operations.

Advancing space science with the Canadian Space Agency

The NRC has been working with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) since the CSA's inception as a spin-off from the NRC.

In 2020, we signed a memorandum of understanding to create a collaboration framework for areas including earth observation, sensor development and testing, and space technology development.

Since then, our projects have spanned various research areas, including microgravity research, health technologies and data management through the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre.

The 2023 federal budget provided the CSA with $76.5 million over 8 years to support Canadian science on the Lunar Gateway station, and we look forward to supporting this mission.