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Inventing Autonomy for In-Orbit Satellite Repairs

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Published on Friday, 14 February 2020

The University of Luxembourg’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) signed a partnership agreement with the space start-up LIFT ME OFF (LMO). The cooperation provides crucial research support for tackling future needs of autonomous in-orbit satellite repairs.

In-orbit servicing operations like refueling and repairs are a key stepping-stone towards increasing humanity’s activities in space as it will pave the way for in-orbit construction. While fixing something by standing right next to it can already be a complex task, fixing a satellite orbiting in space is significantly more challenging. Service vehicles that can identify targets and take action without requiring human instructions from earth would change the equation entirely. Independence and autonomy will allow for much more flexibility in future mission planning of a service vehicle, as well as allowing it to conduct its operations without custom equipment.

To make autonomy possible, the service vehicle needs to be able to see what it is doing, and process that data. This is why LMO approached SnT, to work with the Computer Vision, Imaging & Machine Intelligence research group, led by Dr. Djamila Aouada. Together, SnT researchers and LMO will develop technologies to give service vehicles intelligent visual processing. Computer vision will allow the vehicle to recognise the parts of the satellite it is working on and to process the data it receives, to then make autonomous decisions and successfully repair or refuel the spacecraft.

“The agreement with LMO marks a milestone for SnT; it is our first ‘new space’ partnership on a strategic issue for space business. The innovative computer vision technology developed by Dr. Aouada and her team will now find applications in the space sector,” said Prof. Björn Ottersten, director of SnT. “LIFT ME OFF has advanced technology and an innovative business plan - we are enthusiastic about embarking on this first research project with them.”

“Our work is typically applied to security solutions on the ground, so bringing our research into space will give us many new research opportunities,” said Dr. Aouada, principal investigator on the project. “This is a very new field and there is a lot of work to be done to grow the role of computer vision in the space sector.”

“We are only at the start of our collaboration with Dr. Aouada’s team and the fresh perspective from outside the space sector already delivers many insights,” said Michel Poucet, CEO of LIFT ME OFF. “SnT’s international team and its decade of terrestrial computer vision experience combined with LIFT ME OFF’s space experience makes SnT a perfect partner for helping us in our mission to make space safe and sustainable.”

“SnT plays a key role in supporting the space ecosystem of Luxembourg and attracting new space start-ups like LIFT ME OFF,” said Georges Schmit, member of the Luxembourg Government’s Space Resources Advisory Board. “It has a long history of collaborating with the space sector but also looks at challenges beyond that, making SnT uniquely positioned to develop innovative solutions for this industry.”