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Swarms of smart nano-satellites may offer global connectivity

Sharon Gaudin | Sept. 16, 2015
Using artificial intelligence and satellites the size of a loaf of bread could be a game changer for space industry

Some communication satellites can weigh as much as 6 tons and be the size of a small school bus. With that much size and bulk, they are expensive to get launched into orbit because of the size of the rocket needed to get them off the ground.

CubeSats, though, are much smaller. Some, literally, are as small as a bread box. Others could fit in the palm of your hand.

NASA has been testing CubeSats for the past several years. In the fall of 2013, NASA worked with the U.S. Air Force to launch an Air Force Minotaur 1 rocket, carrying 28 small satellites, some built by college students.

One of the nano-satellites launched then was NASA's own PhoneSat 2.4, which was powered by a Nexus S smartphone and used a solar array to keep it charged.

One of the advantages of these small, often single-purpose satellites is that many can be launched from one rocket.

A traditional satellite is likely to be launched one at a time and, with multiple payloads onboard, it could take as long as 10 years to get a satellite from inception to launch.

"One of the great things about CubeSats is the ability to get them into space very quickly -- six to 18 months," Clark said in an interview with Computerworld. "When you're talking satellites, six to 18 [months] is a fast turnaround."

So far, Clyde Space has been involved with the likes of the U.S. Army, defense contractor Raytheon Co. and American aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin.

The nano-satellites could carry cameras and be used, say, to monitor forests for timber growth or fires, or for a company to track its fleet of ships. Someone could even have a smartphone app that would direct a CubeSat to take a selfie of him or her from space.

Where it gets really interesting, though, is when you start talking about having a swarm -- maybe hundreds -- of these small satellites working together as a team.

Using artificial intelligence (A.I.), according to Clark, would allow the satellites to work in a choreographed manner without humans having to guide their every movement.

"It needs to be autonomous when you're talking about 100 CubeSats working together," he said. "Say your [swarm] was tasked with a certain job, like taking a picture of Glasgow. If the first one comes over and it's cloudy, it alerts the others that it couldn't get a picture so the others will go over and continue trying until the clouds pass."

He also noted that satellites working as a swarm could carry different kinds of cameras -- like visible and infrared -- and then combine the data and send it down as a richer presentation. The swarm also could take multiple pictures from different areas to create something more akin to stereo data.

"You want to take humans out of the loop because they're slow and expensive," said Clark. "A.I. lets you do that."


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