14 Jul 2020

Using advanced AI software to help manage space traffic – 1500km above us

The UK Government has just invested £400M in OneWeb, which will have an initial constellation of over 600 satellites and possible growth to 2000 satellites, for the provision of global broadband – and potentially navigation services.

As space gets more congested, tpgroup engineers are working on innovative solutions to monitor and manage space traffic.

The changing universe of satellites

Satellites are an essential source of communications, navigation and earth observation services, and will fuel the 5G and Internet of Things (IoT) revolution – enabling initiatives such as smart cities, autonomous vehicles, and connected healthcare.

The new space race is far removed from that of the 1970s when it was a simple two horse affair. Fast-forward 50-years and there are many players putting a lot of money into orbit and beyond.

Nick Shave, the incoming chair of UKSpace (the British Space Trade Association) has set out a vision for the UK to become a modern space power. Similar plans exist in France, Italy, and elsewhere with declarations of national space programmes in addition to their participation in the European Space Agency. Superpowers and large multinational agencies are now joined by smaller nations and private sector operators.  In the private sector, SpaceX alone has sought approval for 30,000 satellites, all about the size of a washing machine – all going into a narrow band of space known as low earth orbit (LEO).

Solving the challenge of space traffic

Space will become more cluttered, but there is no formal central regulation. ESA estimates that of around 5,500 satellites currently in space – some 3,000 are defunct. Further there are 900,000 debris objects larger than 1cm. The number of satellites and debris will increase exponentially over the coming decades.  And with it, the likelihood of satellite collision and loss of service.  

This is a challenge that tpgroup consultants and engineers are investigating – pooling their experience of space missions, systems and technologies, to suggest new approaches to space traffic management.

The early concept is based upon creating a digital model that represents the position of objects in space based upon real-time data. This then predicts their movement, identifies potential collisions, and recommends an optimal avoidance manoeuvre (if required), based upon advanced artificial (AI) intelligence and machine learning techniques. 

At the core of tpgroup’s concept is our autonomous routing system, already under test for maritime applications. Its strength is in reacting to changes in the environment through which the vessel is navigating and constantly rechecking and adjusting its course based upon environmental conditions. In the context of space, risks to the satellites orbit, such as other satellites or debris, would be constantly assessed and, if a potential collision was identified, the solution would identify the optimal manoeuvre (on a cost benefit basis considering aspects such as fuel usages/service life, service provision/penalties, etc.) to avoid the collision.

The principles of our solution have all been proven in other scenarios and environments, and so the next step is to engage up with other agencies and providers around the world to put the jigsaw together and test its true value before space resembles a busy highway.

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