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MDA’s AutoChart software extracts digital data from the NGA’s aircraft navigation databases and automatically generates a graphical depiction of the information in a format that can be viewed by the pilot on a mobile device, such as an iPad.

MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., a Vancouver-based space technology firm intent on expanding in the United States, has signed a deal with a huge U.S. government agency to help modernize airport navigation.

The three-year contract, with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), will see MDA provide software and services to speed up the process of making up-to-date charts of airports and the airspace around them.

While the contract is not huge – it is worth about $5-million and has options to expand to about $10-million – it is important to MDA because it "opens up one of the most important aviation agencies in the world," said Herbert Satterlee, general manager of MDA's information systems business.

The NGA creates maps and charts of instrument flight procedures that pilots use to land and depart at airports around the world. But these charts have traditionally been drafted and maintained manually – with the help of computer-aided drafting (CAD) software. Now the agency wants to automate the process using software that creates the charts directly from geospatial data.

"What we are essentially doing is automating the auto-pilot charts," Mr. Satterlee said. The system will help create a chart on a tablet or iPhone "so the pilot has a visual representation of exactly what he is supposed to do."

These charts are supplied to commercial airlines as well as the military, Mr. Satterlee said, so automating them could potentially make air travel more efficient and safe.

While the initial MDA contract is mainly to automate instrument landing charts, "we are hoping that in the longer term they will be happy with the product....and then we will be able to do it with other of their many, many aeronautical charts," he said.

MDA's AutoChart technology will be used as a basis for for the NGA project. MDS has already used it to help the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration develop aeronautical information systems.

MDA, best known for supplying the robotic arms used on NASA space shuttles and on the International Space Station, has shifted focus to concentrate on communications satellites along with surveillance and intelligence technology. Two years ago the company boosted its satellite business sharply when it bought U.S.-based commercial satellite maker Space Systems/Loral for $875-million (U.S.). That gave it a foothold in the United States and access to U.S. government contracts.

In 2008 Ottawa blocked MDS from being sold to a U.S. space and weapons manufacturer, saying the transaction wouldn't be of net benefit to Canada.

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