Customer Story: How MDA Uses VR Training For Outer Space Operations

Learn how MDA Space uses VR in partnership with ArborXR to build technology and train astronauts for some of the world’s most important space projects.

The Company

John S. MacDonald and Vern Dettwiler founded MDA Space in 1969. They’re now a technology partner to many leading space initiatives. These include the European Space Agency’s ExoMArs mission and NASA’s Artemis program. For Artemis, MDA is building Canadarm3, the world’s most advanced space robotics system. MDA also manufactured Dextre, a two-armed robot that helps maintain the International Space Station (ISS). Through its DREAMR lab, MDA has led the application of VR to space tech.

The Problem

As a space company, MDA faces the ongoing challenge of simulating on-orbit scenarios, which are vital for training and technology development. Yet even with the introduction of VR, technical hurdles remained. Manually updating a large fleet of headsets with complex 3D models was difficult and time-consuming. Many of these models were also security-controlled. With many headsets across multiple locations, collaboration was also a challenge.

The Solution

MDA uses ArborXR to manage and troubleshoot its fleet of VR devices across all its locations. MDA uses headsets to collaborate in 3D environments, design technology, and visualize data. Training astronauts and ground controllers is also one of MDA’s main uses of VR. Headsets running up-to-date models give participants a deep understanding of complex and mission-critical space operations.

How MDA Got Started in VR

MDA is one of the world’s leading space technology innovators. They contributed to Canada’s early satellite projects and helped deploy the Hubble Space Telescope. They also created the Mobile Servicing System (MSS), which assists assembly and maintenance ops on the International Space Station (ISS).

We spoke to Bart Verzijlenberg, one of MDA’s chief software architects, and Jessa Zabala. They head up the Dynamic Robotic Emulation and Mixed Reality (DREAMR) Lab. DREAMR is a zero-gravity training and testing lab based in Brampton. It’s responsible for many of MDA’s mixed and virtual reality initiatives.

MDA’s aim with VR is to create immersive environments as close as possible to on-orbit scenarios. So far, participants have responded positively to a wide range of use cases. Astronauts say that MDA’s VR simulations remind them of real-life spacewalks.

“It’s not that you can’t do training with the standard classroom approach. It’s nicer to have that all-encompassing, immersive environment. It’s like you are on station and seeing the real deal.”
Bart Verzijlenberg
Lead GERS Software Architect

MDA uses VR to approach space tech in new and creative ways. With immersive technology, astronauts and ground controllers can repeatedly practice real-life scenarios in a safe way at a fraction of the cost compared to traditional training. VR also makes collaboration possible across the whole of Canada and the US.

“We do a lot of training of astronauts but it’s not easy to understand traditional training when you look at just pictures or videos. It’s much easier to experience in virtual reality.”
Bart Verzijlenberg
Lead GERS Software Architect

For example, participants use Microsoft Hololens 2 headsets to interact with 3D models of on-orbit robotics. One example is operating the Canadarm2 on the International Space Station (ISS). Bart Verzijlenberg believes this ability to simulate realistic environments is a game-changer.

What Is the Canadarm?

MDA is currently developing the Canadarm3, the Canada Space Agency’s contribution to NASA’s Gateway lunar-orbiting outpost. Canadarm3 is a robotic 8.5-meter arm that will perform autonomous tasks in orbit around the Moon. Among other applications, the MDA team uses VR to simulate walks around the Gateway station.

The Benefits of VR for MDA

VR has significantly improved training quality and engagement. This is true for astronauts, mission ops ground control, and even onboarding for new hires. It has also created many opportunities to test and simulate new technology.

“Compared to working on a screen, the insights mission ops gained through a single hour of VR were enormously powerful.”
Bart Verzijlenberg
Lead GERS Software Architect

MDA has a multitude of VR use cases. These include in-house onboarding, training inside the ISS, and remote hardware testing. For example, students can use simulated physical hardware in ways not previously possible. They can take it apart and reconstruct it without risking millions of dollars.

VR also has many applications for mission analysis, such as testing the movements of the Canadarm3. It’s also possible to overlay training environments onto physical hardware.

The real “AHA” moment for Bart and Jessa came when they experienced an astronaut nodding along at the reality of VR environments. The astronaut felt nostalgic and emotional, bringing to mind his many spacewalks.

This real-life immersion is at the core of VR’s potential for Bart and Jessa. Bart calls it a full “overview” of the space environment. VR takes participants as close as possible to actual on-orbit scenarios.

This has proven far more time and cost-effective than traditional classroom approaches and building physical environments with real hardware.

Challenges of VR for MDA

Having a large fleet of headsets presents challenges for MDA. These headsets run complex applications in need of regular updates. The classified nature of the software also necessitates strict security. VR-based collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), a government agency, involves very tight protocols.

“A key challenge was having to manually update all our units, especially given we have controlled materials.”
Bart Verzijlenberg
Lead GERS Software Architect

Models that simulate the behavior of engineering systems are also detailed and data-intensive. Often, they are not immediately compatible with device operating systems.
Additionally, providing multi-user experiences was difficult. Sharing models across headsets at different locations involved time-consuming sideloading and on-site deployment. This was especially the case when third parties were involved.

Finding the Right Partner in ArborXR for VR Deployment

MDA needed a secure VR device management platform able to deal with complex models. It also had to work across multiple locations and support remote collaboration.

According to Jessa, ArborXR let MDA immediately “deploy directly to headsets across multiple locations.” It also provided full in-house control and a high level of security. This removed the need to share code with third parties, including the Canadian Space Agency.

“It has been a hard-fought battle to securely transmit our VR app to government organizations like the Canadian Space Agency…with ArborXR it’s a battle now-won. We can easily and securely share our app to their headsets remotely through ArborXR because it’s so secure.”
Jessa Zabala
DREAMR Lab Manager and Project Lead

ArborXR enables MDA’s training and collaboration across Houston, Brampton, and Saint-Hubert sites. Notably, MDA also uses VR for demos, presentations, and pitches to clients.

Final Thoughts

MDA uses VR in many ways, including remote collaboration, hardware testing, and immersive training. For all of these use cases, they need a robust, comprehensive device management solution like ArborXR.

MDA has seen first hand the positive effects of VR. Engineers, ground ops, students, and astronauts aren’t only benefiting from VR. They’re proactively asking to use it.

“I love it when the engineers ask for the latest build for design or ops planning. If this is a tool our engineers want to use, that is a huge win for us.”
Jessa Zabala
DREAMR Lab Manager and Project Lead

There’s also much excitement about the future. It may even be possible for MDA to use VR to allow the public to see live space data and ops through headsets.

Managing their headsets through ArborXR enables MDA to deploy efficiently. They can supply their team with the latest models and apps. All without having to worry about distance, security, or manual uploading.

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