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Inventor’s concept for a roadside guardrail became essential component of Canadarm’s positioning system. (Karen Bell)
Inventor’s concept for a roadside guardrail became essential component of Canadarm’s positioning system. (Karen Bell)

Obituary

Lloyd Pinkney was a brilliant thinker who was ‘never wrong’ Add to ...

Lloyd Pinkney was always thinking. The engineer, who worked at the National Research Council in Ottawa for 44 years, was out at a movie one night with his wife and another couple and still pondering an engineering conundrum when he had a eureka moment.

It was The Graduate and toward the end of the movie, Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin runs by the wall of a church.

“That’s how I’ll do it! That’s it!” he called out in the dark, quiet theatre, to be immediately shushed by his wife.

Seeing the image of a moving object against a fixed object gave him the idea of using fixed points to measure movement. It was a concept he would apply in a couple of innovative ways: He used it initially to monitor car crashes when he invented a roadside guardrail, and it later became an essential component of a positioning system he created for the Canadarm. The Space Vision System (SVS) he conceived uses cameras on a spacecraft and at the end of the arm to track points on a payload and measure their movements to calculate precisely where the arm sits in three-dimensional space.

“We made it work as a team but without Lloyd, there would be no system. It was his creativity at the beginning that got it started,” says Steve MacLean, former astronaut and former president of the Canadian Space Agency.

Mr. Pinkney had been asked to create the system as a backup, in case the Canadarm didn’t meet the space agency’s specifications for control. The arm did, and was delivered to NASA in 1981 without the system.

But when Mr. MacLean flew on the shuttle Columbia in 1992, he took SVS with him, testing it for five days in space to see if it could control the arm more precisely.

“We wondered if it would work. Of course it did. Lloyd was never wrong,” recalls Garry Lindberg, who was project manager for the Canadarm starting in 1974 and became director general for the NRC in 1979. “It really augmented the arm’s abilities. It made it possible to do things that the basic arm could not do.”

The NRC retrofitted all Canadarms to include SVS and it became a standard part of the Canadarm2, which was released in 2001. The system, which eventually used lasers instead of cameras, was instrumental in helping build the International Space Station, where it is still in use today.

In his four decades at the NRC, Mr. Pinkney worked on a wide range of projects through the Institute for Aerospace Research and the Integrated Manufacturing Technologies Institute.

In the 1970s, he helped invent an innovative roadside guardrail made of cables that, when a car crashed into it, would gently nudge it back to the side of the road, causing minimal damage to the vehicle and its occupants.

“The barriers should have been used, but they didn’t get adopted,” Mr. Lindberg recalls.

At one point, the NRC was having a hard time calibrating one of the wind tunnels it used to test the safety of airplanes. Mr. Pinkney was called in and, using his extensive knowledge of physics, engineering and aerospace design, got it back on track.

“He was a brilliant mind and did all sorts of interesting things,” Mr. Lindberg says.

A well-rounded childhood

Harold Frederick Lloyd Pinkney was born in 1931 in Blairmore, a coal-mining town in southern Alberta. His father, Robert William Harold Pinkney (who went by the name Harold), was a decorated First World War veteran who fought at Passchendaele, and after the war ran the family business, the general store F.M. Thompson Company.

Young Lloyd and his older sisters Thelma and Audrey grew up working in the store, skiing in the nearby Rockies and golfing – Mr. Pinkney’s mother, Elin, was the ladies’ champion at the local golf club for 10 years and Audrey later held the same title for a decade herself. Audrey was an excellent pianist and Lloyd played the violin; music was a huge part of all Pinkney family gatherings.

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