MONTREAL - The iconic Canadarm, which first flexed its mechanical muscles on a space shuttle 30 years ago, has grown up — and it's gotten smaller along the way.
It was on Nov. 13, 1981, that the first robotic space limb was deployed on U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia.
The anniversary, and the recent end of the shuttle program, provide an occasion to remember the past of the Canadian robotics sector and consider where it goes from here.
Over 30 years, the Canadarm has helped build the International Space Station, repaired satellites in space and even fixed broken toilets. The huge robotic arm with its Canada wordmark retired last July after making the last of its 90 shuttle missions and voyages totalling over 624 million kilometres.
Two other robotic arms — Canadarm2 and DEXTRE, a two-armed, $200-million robot — are still on the job on the space station.
Back on Earth, the little robot has made its mark, too. Smaller versions of the Canadarm have been used to perform brain surgery and have even helped doctors operate on children.
MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), which built five Canadarms, also developed "neuroArm" — a two-armed system that performs surgical procedures inside an MRI machine.
It's still undergoing clinical trials, but Christian Sallaberger, MDA's vice-president of space exploration, says neuroArm has been used in 10 to 15 operations at the University of Calgary Foothills Hospital.
He proudly points out that the medical arm filters out high-frequency tremors so "the surgeon has the experience of age but the steady hands of youth."
MDA also built KidsArm which is designed for operations on small children and babies at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. It's intended to be used by surgeons to reconnect delicate vessels like veins, arteries and intestines.
The Richmond, B.C., based company is also developing a robotic system to help in the detection and treatment of breast cancer. Another arm can inspect nuclear power plants.
But Canada is not alone in the robotics business and can't expect to rest on its laurels for long.
Kevin Shortt, the head of the Canadian Space Society, says the original Canadarm was a great piece of equipment that Canadians can be proud of — but it's history.
"We can't continue to keep going back to that because countries like Germany and Japan are hot on the heels of building their own technology in that respect," he said in an interview.
"I think they're knocking on our doorstep."
Shortt points to a small Japanese robotic arm on a module outside the space station which is helping to manage an experimental payload.
General Motors is also developing "R-2." The humanoid-style robot cannot perform all the operational functions of its complex Canadian counterpart, DEXTRE. But, in Shortt's view, the realistic-looking robot, "basically leaves DEXTRE in the dust." A version of the GM robot is already up on the station doing indoor experiments.
Steve MacLean, the head of the Canadian Space Agency, says Canada has to continue to invest if it wants to maintain its advantage in robotics. MacLean sees opportunities in a number of areas like robotic servicing where a small arm could be used to refuel and repair orbiting satellites.
"What we would like to do is concentrate on a few areas where robotics can make operations more efficient and actually make space operations safer," he said in a recent interview.
MacLean says private companies are now doing work on prototypes for the next generation of Canadarms which would put robotic technology to use on different-sized rovers.
There's a small micro-rover which would carry out experiments, like the two rovers currently on the surface of Mars. A medium-sized rover would explore surfaces like the Moon and drill for resources.
And a large rover with robotic arms would be operated by astronauts working in a pressurized vehicle — in their shirt-sleeves.
Christian Sallaberger, MDA's vice-president of space exploration, says any future robotic arm won't be as large as the 15-metre-long tool which was on the space shuttles.
"We won't see too many more of those because the vehicles replacing the space shuttles are smaller vehicles, which look like mini-shuttles and space capsules," he said.
Looking into the future, Sallaberger says discussions have already begun with other industrial partners in the international space station on the future of human exploration.
"As an example, we've been looking the possibility of a human outpost — a kind of mini space station (near the moon) that astronauts can go to," he said.
It would be located at the Earth-Moon Lagrange point. Lagrange points are locations where gravity balances itself out and where a space station could theoretically be stationary.
"You could build such a space station using a lot of things we've already developed and built for the International Space Station," Sallaberger said.
"So with reasonably low cost, you could put this human outpost much further out into space."
For Chris Hadfield, the Canadarm has been a staple of his entire career, which began when he was hired by the Canadian Space Agency in 1992.
He was the first Canadian to operate the giant robotic arm, which he did on the Shuttle Atlantis in 1995 during its visit to the now-defunct Russian space station Mir. Hadfield also helped install Canadarm2 on the current space station in 2001.
"The things that it has led to have really been pivotal to the things that I have had a chance to do," he said in an interview from Cologne, Germany.
Hadfield is currently training for a six-month visit to the space station which will begin in late 2012.
MacLean says the original Canadarm will soon be brought back to Canada, sometime after the end of the year.
The robotic arm was last used on the Shuttle Endeavour during its final space mission, which ended June 1.
MacLean says the Canadarm has to be modified for public display before it can be installed at the CSA headquarters, south of Montreal.