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Actually, it is rocket science

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November 18, 2022 — 

Dr. Philip Ferguson

Listening to Philip Ferguson list off the projects he is involved with, you’d think he wouldn’t have time to sit and talk with me about them.

Ferguson is an associate professor in mechanical engineering, the NSERC / Magellan Aerospace Industrial Research Chair in Satellite Engineering at UM, and the director of STARLab, a suite of projects based in the Price Faculty of Engineering and where he is telling me about his work.

As we talk, beside me on a table is a cube-shaped structure about half a metre on each side, looking like a half-made Meccano kit or something constructed from an ancient Tinkertoy set. Across the room from us is a long wooden trough filled with sand, and what appears to be a truck with wheels at one end. In the centre of the room is a large area encompassed by netting. Scattered around the room are tables with computers where grad students are busily poring over data and displays. It looks rather like the set of a Big Bang Theory episode.

Testing a drone's ability to detect objects on and under ice

Testing a drone’s ability to detect objects on and under ice

Ferguson explains: “My research aims to ‘make space accessible’ for communities.  I’m currently working on a CubeSat design that would empower northern Inuit communities with ice and snow remote sensing data to help them assess ice safety. Climate change makes that more and more perilous for them.”

Ferguson and his team of grad students and other faculty are partnering with the town of Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, and with outreach collaborators in Churchill.  This satellite will be launched into a polar orbit, much like the next shell of Starlink satellites that is expected to give Arctic communities access to high-speed internet.

In fact, while emailing me about his work, because he lives in a remote area of Manitoba, Ferguson used a Starlink high-speed Internet system rather than the wifi or wired systems most of us use. It’s indicative of how satellite and remote sensing technology is so pervasive in our everyday lives.

Drone for testing satellites

Drone for testing satellites

While focusing on space technology, Ferguson is also experimenting with drones to supplement or enhance other projects. For example, the cube next to me is a complex drone within which a small satellite can be attached. The drone can then hover, accelerate and spin to simulate zero gravity, all while hovering in the STARlab in the UM Engineering & Information Technology Complex (EITC), so that the satellite’s spaceworthiness can be tested without actually launching it into space.

Ferguson predicts that within ten years, a satellite could be designed, built, tested and launched into space for about $250K, much less than the billions spent in previous decades. In fact, the UM satellite that is getting ready for launch was built for about $60K—a mere drop in the aerospace bucket.

He explains: “I’m just finishing a project that qualified a bunch of automotive-grade parts for space. This speaks to the ‘accessibility’ of space. It is no longer the case that satellites need to be built from ‘space-grade’ parts. We are doing research with Magellan Aerospace to create lower cost electronics, thereby improving the accessibility to space.”

“We even 3D printed many parts,” he adds.

The Ferguson lab is also working on a project that will help mitigate the challenge of unwanted space debris. Recently, the problem of pieces of decommissioned or damaged spacecraft in varying orbits which could endanger astronauts has been in the news and is of concern to NASA and the new US Space Force. Ferguson and his team are building a small thruster pod-like vehicle that could bring space debris back to earth autonomously.

Part of the problem in detecting and grabbing space debris is the tracking of the individual pieces. Ferguson’s team is also working on new kinds of sensors that could aid in tracking and locating materials of interest. These remote sensing strategies can be used by satellites to determine the thickness of ice in the Arctic, monitor herds of caribou, measure soil moisture in farmland, and even guide drones towards targets.

The drone side of his work is really taking off. Literally.

The netted area inside the lab is where they test drones and keep them from escaping down the hallways of the university. (“It’s happened,” he notes.)

Ferguson says there are plans to build a large structure in UM Smartpark where a multitude of projects can be built and tested, such as using onboard AI to steer drones and gather data remotely. The new facility will be known as “the Drone Dome,” and could be used year-round to test and fly drones and other craft. $2.1M in funding for the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) facility was announced on November 18, 2022, by the Honourable Dan Vandal, Minister for PrairiesCan.

The UM "Mars Rover"

The UM “Mars Rover”

The trench in the EITC lab that is filled with sand is in fact a testing area for drones that could navigate terrain on Mars and other planets. A larger simulation of Mars could be built inside the Drone Dome as well.

And then there’s the pigs.

This needs some explanation. Every year, tragic deaths occur when Canadians fall through the ice on lakes and rivers. Unfortunately, their bodies don’t always sink to the bottom because they have so much air in them, so they instead float to the underside of the ice and are trapped. When attempted rescuers search for them, nothing is found on the bottom because the bodies are above them, hidden from view.

But if a drone was able to penetrate the ice with lidar or radar, the bodies could be located more easily. And that’s where the pigs come in.

Ferguson and his colleagues (including Drs. Gordon Giesbrecht and Ian Jeffrey) have used hog carcases placed under water and beneath ice as human analogues, then deployed sensors above the ice to locate the bodies. It’s grisly, but it may be used to locate human victims of tragedy someday.

STARlab is one of the most unique facilities at UM, and with the development of the Drone Dome and the launch of a UM satellite hopefully in early 2023, Manitoba’s race for space seems like it’s just beginning.

Dr. Philip Ferguson with some of his team's drones and spacecraft

Dr. Philip Ferguson with some of his team’s drones and spacecraft

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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Helping people living with dementia ‘flourish’ through dance

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Dr. Pia Kontos, a Senior Scientist at UHN’s KITE Research Institute, is co-leading an initiative to help people living with dementia flourish. (Photo: Tim Fraser/UHN KITE Studio)

Dr. Pia Kontos believes in the power of the arts to support people to live well with dementia.

The Senior Scientist at UHN’s KITE Research Institute focuses on challenging policies and practices that discriminate against those living with dementia and developing and evaluating arts-based and digital knowledge translation initiatives to reduce stigma, improve social inclusion and quality of care for them.

“The predominant assumption is people living with dementia don’t have the capacity to be creative,” says Dr. Kontos, who is also a professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. “However, we know through extensive research that dance…powerfully supports people living with dementia to be creative and to flourish.

“And flourishing should be a goal that we all have.”

Dr. Kontos co-produced in 2023 Dancer Not Dementia, a short documentary film. It captured the power of a dance program for seniors – Sharing Dance Older Adults (SDOA) – to challenge the stigma associated with dementia, support social inclusion and enrich lives. It’s told through the eyes of residents and staff at Alexis Lodge Dementia Care Residence and Cedarhurst Dementia Care Home in Toronto.

SDOA was jointly developed by Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS) and Baycrest Centre in 2013 for older adults with a range of physical and cognitive abilities, including dementia.

Typically, dance programs in dementia care settings are provided as a therapeutic intervention for older adults. However, SDOA’s goal is to provide a creative outlet for participants and opportunities for social interaction with other people living with dementia, staff and loved ones.

Now, Dr. Kontos will look to incorporate traditions from marginalized communities into SDOA through a $750,000 Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Institute of Aging Implementation Science Team Grant. Dr. Rachel Bar, Director of Research and Health at NBS is co-principal applicant for the grant.

This CIHR funding supports projects that evaluate the effectiveness of existing programs, services and models of care that show promise for those impacted by cognitive impairment and dementia. An important focus is improving equitable and inclusive access to care and support.

The three-year grant to Drs. Kontos and Bar will support SDOA efforts to partner with organizations in Black, Chinese and South Asian communities to integrate their cultural practices into its programming.

Training dancers from these communities to teach the adapted program is central to these partnerships.

“People living with dementia from marginalized communities rarely have their traditions honoured with art and leisure programming,” says Dr. Kontos.

“It’s important to align dance programs with the cultural traditions of these communities. Otherwise, the music and movements wouldn’t reflect the experiences of ethno-culturally diverse populations, and the programs wouldn’t be inclusive.

“We wouldn’t be supporting their capacity to be creative or to be in relationships with others through dance. We would be falling short.”

SDOA has already partnered with Alexis Lodge, Alzheimer Society of Canada, Baycrest, NBS, Indus Community Services, Social Planning Council of Ottawa, and Yee Hong for this initiative.

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CDC: Heat may have contributed to four human cases of bird flu in Colorado

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Credit: Alexas Fotos from Pexels

Heat probably played a role in at least four cases of bird flu in poultry workers confirmed by U.S. health officials Sunday—the first cases in poultry workers in two years.

Sweltering temperatures in Colorado rose to at least 104 degrees, which is suspected to have contributed to the human cases, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The barns where poultry workers were culling chickens were “no doubt even hotter,” Shah said during a press conference on the most recent outbreak of bird flu in humans.

The new cases bring the U.S. total to at least nine cases since the first human case of the current outbreak was detected in 2022, also in a Colorado poultry worker. Eight of the nine were reported this year.

The workers were separating chickens that were going to be killed to stop the spread of the virus. The fans may also have contributed to the human infections because, while helping to keep the environment cooler, they “also spread things like feathers around which are known to carry the virus,” Shah added.

The large and strong fans also make it difficult for protective goggles and face masks to stay in place, he said.

About 60 workers at the poultry farm showed symptoms of illness and were tested for bird flu. Four tested positive for bird flu and one additional presumptive case is awaiting confirmation.

The illnesses were relatively mild, with symptoms including conjunctivitis and common respiratory infection symptoms like fever, chills, coughing, and runny nose, according to the CDC. None were hospitalized, officials said. The other U.S. cases have also been mild.

Officials said they are bracing for more cases.

The CDC says the risk to the general public remains low and the health agency is not recommending livestock workers be vaccinated against bird flu given the “mild symptoms noted thus far,” Shah said.

An initial analysis of virus samples from an infected poultry worker does not show any changes in the virus that would make it easier to spread among people and there is no evidence of person-to-person spread in the U.S.

“It’s important to note that this assessment is based on what we know today and may change,” Shah said. “CDC is constantly looking for key changes that may alter our risk assessment of the virus, such as the severity of illness that it causes, the ease with which it can transmit to humans or changes to its genetic fingerprint.”

At the request of Colorado’s officials, the CDC sent a 10-person team to Colorado to help the state manage the bird flu outbreak in humans and poultry. The team included epidemiologists, veterinarians, clinicians and industrial hygienists.

Shah also noted it was a bilingual team. Overall in the U.S., it is estimated about half of farm workers are Latino.

An analysis of the virus from an infected worker indicates that the infections at the chicken farm are “largely the same” as the strain detected in dairy herds in Colorado and other states, according to Shah. But an investigation is ongoing to determine exactly how the outbreak is spreading between wild birds, chicken and cattle.

Since 2022, a highly contagious strain of bird flu has spread across the U.S. at an unprecedented rate.

Georgia’s powerhouse poultry industry, which produces more broiler chickens than any other in the country, has mostly dodged the kinds of major outbreaks that have resulted in the deaths of more 90 million birds in commercial and backyard poultry flocks in the U.S.

About 1.8 million chickens will be killed at the Colorado poultry farm after these latest bird flu cases were detected.

In late 2023, ducks at a commercial breeding farm in Sumter County, Georgia, tested positive for H5N1. This year, in March, the virus made a jump to a mammal species that surprised many scientists: cows.

With a significant dairy industry, plus even larger beef and poultry interests, the potential arrival of the virus here threatens Georgia’s economy and the health of residents.

As of Monday, the H5N1 virus has been confirmed in 158 dairy herds in 13 states, according U.S. Agriculture Department.

So far in Georgia, there have been no bird flu cases in cattle, and there have been no human cases.

Since the unprecedented spread of H5N1 in poultry in 2022, the Georgia Department of Public Health has quietly monitored 132 people for signs of the virus, according to DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam. Those tracked were either first responders to one of the state’s few virus outbreaks in backyard and commercial poultry flocks or farmworkers where the infections occurred. Of those monitored, fewer than 10 people were tested for H5N1 and none came back positive.

Since the virus was discovered in cattle, a small number of first responders from Georgia who went to other states to help with investigations—fewer than 15—have also been monitored for signs of illness.

Federal officials said Tuesday they still believe they can eliminate the bird flu virus from , even as the number of herds infected continues to grow. The latest state to recently report infected dairy cattle was Oklahoma. North Carolina is the only state adjacent to Georgia to report an infected dairy herd.

Eric Deeble, acting senior adviser for the H5N1 response at the USDA, said investigations show the is spreading among cattle through cattle moved from one herd to another and the shared use of milking equipment. It can be contained through enhanced biosecurity measures such as thoroughly cleaning milking “parlors” and equipment, separating sick cows, and having dairy workers wear protective equipment.

Deeble also noted USDA scientists are also working with partners to develop a cattle-specific H5N1 vaccine—a process requires many steps and will take time.

The USDA is also exploring the possibility of developing a poultry vaccine as the number of cases soar, and outbreaks lead to the slaughter of millions of farmed birds. But USDA and industry stakeholders point to challenges that would hinder a vaccination program.

The biggest sticking point is around trade.

Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said mass vaccination would be impractical for several reasons, including the fact that the industry would lose its lucrative export market: The United States and many of its trade partners restrict the import of products or eggs from countries affected by the highly pathogenic strain or flocks that have been vaccinated against it.

“(Bird flu) has been, from an animal health standpoint, our top concern,” Giles said. “The challenge, and I think the industry has responded to it well, has been maintaining the state of preparedness and urgency and focus on biosecurity, and I think that has been accomplished.”

2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Here is the new guidance for RSV vaccines

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Health officials recently changed the guidelines for respiratory syncytial virus vaccines. Here’s what Canadians need to know about the guidance and the virus itself.

New guidance on vaccines

As of July 12, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) now recommends RSV vaccines for individuals who are 75 years old and older, especially those who have a greater risk of developing severe RSV.

Based on current evidence and expert opinion, NACI said in a news release, it also strongly recommends vaccines for those aged 60 and older who live in nursing homes and other chronic care facilities.

What is RSV?

RSV is a common contagious virus that often causes bronchiolitis, a lung infection, and pneumonia.

Infants face the highest risk of developing severe RSV disease, however, this risk also increases with age and with certain medical conditions, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). It can lead to serious complications for older people, including hospitalization and death.

What are the symptoms?

RSV typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms that usually begin two to eight days after exposure to the virus, according to PHAC.

Those with RSV may experience a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, fever and less appetite and energy. Infants may be irritable, have trouble breathing and have less appetite and energy.

What is the treatment?

RSV infections are usually mild and last about one to two weeks. If you are infected, health officials recommend you stay home and limit contact with others.

They also recommend lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Take over-the-counter products, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, if you have a fever. Seek immediate care or go to the hospital if you’re having trouble breathing or become dehydrated, PHAC adds.

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