Hard-wired to create, engineering graduate aims for the stars

Chris Robson's engineering journey is just beginning, but it's destined to go far

Richard Cairney - 07 June 2016

(Edmonton) True story: When Chris Robson was six, his older brother convinced him he was a robot. And because his brother had created him, Chris was bound by a mildly sinister take on Asimov's second rule of robotics. Robots are required to obey their creators and therefore Chris had to obey his brother's every command.

His commitment to the role of obedient robot servant "only lasted a couple of days," Robson says. But-and remember, he was just six-Robson wasn't pretending he was a robot, he believed he was one. He became fascinated with all things mechanical. "All my favourite toys were robotics, or Meccano-I became obsessed with building things. I didn't know what it was called, but I kept doing that and I paid a lot of attention in science and math classes because they're related to building things."

Robson's father was a directional driller and the family grew up in southeast Asia, returning to Calgary when Chris was 13. His love for creating and building was still growing strong while he was in high school.

That creativity and drive to design and build, according to Robson's high school guidance counsellor, would serve him well as an engineer. By his own admission Robson "actually had no idea" what engineers do. That isn't uncommon-there is no high school course called "Engineering."

What is uncommon-quite unique, actually-is the journey Robson is embarking on as he graduates with a degree in mechanical engineering.

The short version of this story is that he and a group of his classmates are building an aerospace industry in Alberta. The long version begins in 2011, with the final chapter of the U.S. Space Shuttle program.

On July 8, 2011, Robson was working at oilfield engineering company on one of three job placements he'd complete as an engineering co-op student. During a break, he watched the end of an era unfold in an online webcast as NASA launched the space shuttle Atlantis-the final voyage of the shuttle program.

"I'd never seen a space launch before," he recalls. It was a powerful moment. Sitting at his desk, Robson experienced an epiphany. "I looked around the room and said to myself: "I don't want to work in oil and gas-I want to do space stuff."

What exactly "space stuff" was didn't become clear for a year, when Robson and a fellow mechanical engineering student, Marci Frioult, joined a new-ish Faculty of Engineering student group called AlbertaSat. The team had entered a design for a cube satellite in the Canadian Space Agency-sponsored Canadian Satellite Design Competition, and had won an award for satellite design in 2012 at an international competition in Japan.

Two team members were graduating, leaving the group with four or five members-two of them brand new. Robson and Backs shared project management duties as the team began working on a new satellite for the CSA design competition.

Then, that "space stuff" turned into something greater than just drawing plans for a satellite. The team caught wind of an opportunity to design and build a cube satellite that would be one of 50 satellites launched into space.

"We jumped on that like it was a prime rib steak and we hadn't eaten for three days," Robson says. It's no exaggeration. He ended up spending an eight-month co-op placement as project manager of AlbertaSat's ExAlta-1 project.

Later this year, the satellite will be launched into space as part of the international QB-50 project. The goal of the project is to scatter 50 cube satellites into the lower thermosphere-a poorly understood region of our atmosphere. It will be the first-ever made-in-Alberta satellite.

But if Robson and his colleagues have their way it will definitely not be the last. The group is forming a company that will design and build satellites for Earth Observation. And they're already making a name for themselves.

At a national aerospace conference earlier this year, Robson met with Canadian Space Agency President Sylvain Laporte who, in a keynote address to attendees, called out Robson mid-speech, urging industry leaders to meet with Robson and eight other AlbertaSat members who were delivering presentations at the event.

"I honestly had a little heart attack when he called me out," Robson says. "This was very different than the academic conferences we usually go to . . . the industry presentations here focused on using science and engineering to solve global problems rather than solving science or engineering problems."

Robson's immediate plans are to begin working on his Master's degree. He'll spend the next couple of years working on a cube satellite-related problem, knowing full well that his research will make it to the private sector and, no doubt, beyond.