One interesting technological growth area in the space sector is onboard computing. Traditionally, satellites focus on collecting and then transmitting data to Earth. The bulk of the analysis is done on our planet. But nowadays, due in large part to miniaturization trends, there are more opportunities for onboard computing. To learn more about onboard computing, we spoke to Taofiq Huq, the CEO of Spiral Blue, an Australia-based onboard computing firm.
Why is onboard computing important for satellites?
Currently, Earth observation satellites are quite inefficient and have many limitations. These satellites are used to monitor the planet by detecting changes in landscapes or by detecting objects or assets that people own and use. At the moment, affordable access to satellite data is difficult for many people due to these inefficiencies and limitations.
The reason satellites are inefficient is that they are unable to send down as much data as they collect due to limitations in bandwidth. This is like being in the countryside with poor mobile reception while trying to upload photos to the Internet. Satellites are sending large volumes of raw data down to Earth. It isn’t until the data reach the ground that they are processed with powerful computers. This means there is a lot of wasted capacity of a satellite.
Consequently, traditional Earth observation companies prioritize areas that have high serviceability. They simply do not service less sought out areas with less ability to pay for this data.
Onboard computing aims to solve this problem. Instead of sending down large amounts of raw data to be processed on Earth, onboard computing allows for in-orbit processing, sending back only the data that the user needs. Onboard computing thus makes satellites more efficient and data more affordable for end-users.
What is Spiral Blue doing to develop onboard computing?
Spiral Blue is developing and testing a series of onboard computers called Space Edge Computers that will be used on Earth observation satellites. The miniaturization of computers over the last few decades has placed us in a great position that allows us to finally put small computers in cubesats. However, these computers need to be space-tested to ensure they actually work throughout mission lifetimes.
What this means is that our Space Edge Computers need to withstand the environments of launch and space. They need to survive the forces endured during launch, and then in space they need to survive extreme radiation and extreme temperature swings of 100 degrees Celsius. Such conditions can obviously damage computer components.
In July 2021, Spiral Blue kicked off an important test. We flew two of the first prototypes of our “Space Edge Zero” (SEZ) computer into orbit on Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket from off the coast of California. Hosted on SatRevolution’s Earth observation satellites, STORK-4 and STORK-5, our SEZ uses NVIDIA’s Jetson Nanos, which can run complex artificial intelligence algorithms. This mission also tests one of Spiral Blue’s Earth observation applications, called Vessel detect. We developed this AI algorithm to detect vessels and ships in satellite images.
We currently have future missions planned for mid-2022 and beyond. They will test newer iterations of our prototype Space Edge Computers.
How are you planning to use onboard computers to benefit the space industry?
At Spiral Blue, we believe in making space technology and Earth observation more accessible to people. We want to democratize space. We aim to benefit the Earth by really changing how we image and observe the planet. Using onboard computing, we’re introducing a more streamlined and efficient method of accessing information regarding our planet. We’re also ensuring that end-users who use satellite imagery receive meaningful insights that are relevant to their needs.
With onboard computing, end users won’t need to always download and handle large amounts of raw data from satellites anymore to process on Earth.
With our edge computers, satellites will become more efficient. This will bring down the cost of imagery, provide insights in a timelier fashion, and give end-users more customization as to how they access and utilize remote sensing data.
Whether it’s monitoring environmental data, financial assets, or just object detection, by using onboard satellites, we can remove important obstacles. We can help bypass the need for excessively large minimum order quantities. We can provide valuable products for remote areas with low serviceability. We can improve the process of accessing satellite data.