Astrobotic Developing Advanced Visual Space Navigation System

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Astrobotic will continue developing a compact visual space navigation system for use by small satellites, lunar landers and surface rovers with the help of NASA funding.

The space agency has selected the Pittsburgh-based company for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) phase II award to continue development of its ultra-compact standalone visual relative navigation system, also known as UltraNav.

“NASA applications of the technology include exploration CubeSats and SmallSats, as well as microlanders for precision science instrument deployment to planetary bodies,” the company said in its project summary.

“Larger-scale mission architectures such as LunaNet could incorporate UltraNav as an additional sensor for positioning, navigation, and timing purposes,” the summary added.

SBIR phase II awards are worth up to $750,000. NASA previously supported the project under a smaller phase I grant.

“The UltraNav system components will provide a compact form factor that fits within approximately 1.5U (10 x 10 x 15 cm), weighs less than 2 kg, and requires less than 5 W to power, enabling its use in power-, mass-, and volume-constrained applications, such as CubeSats and SmallSats,” the summary said.

Astrobotic said the technology could be used for: entry, decent, and landing (EDL) on other worlds; autonomous rendezvous and docking between spacecraft; and deep-space navigation.

The project summary follows.

Ultra-Compact Standalone Visual Relative Navigation
Subtopic: Guidance, Navigation and Control

Astrobotic Technology, Inc.
Pittsburgh, PA

Principal Investigator
Chris Owens

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

Astrobotic proposes the development and prototyping of UltraNav, a low size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) visual relative navigation system capable of implementing modern vision-based navigation and modeling methods including Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN), Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM), Visual-Inertial Odometry (VIO), and Structure-from-Motion (SfM).

The UltraNav system components will provide a compact form factor that fits within approximately 1.5U (10 x 10 x 15 cm), weighs less than 2 kg, and requires less than 5 W to power, enabling its use in power-, mass-, and volume-constrained applications, such as CubeSats and SmallSats.

The UltraNav system interfacing will be designed to enable flexibility of use as either a part of a larger navigation solution or as a standalone sensor on a small exploration spacecraft. A efficient radiation-tolerant System-on-Chip (SoC) will be integrated into a larger system that includes a camera and inertial measurement unit (IMU).

This system will be used to test a version of the Astrobotic Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) algorithm that is modified to utilize UltraNav’s  processing capabilities and balance performance with the computational limits of the low SWaP system.

Vision techniques are viable in many missions and across a variety of domains, in applications such as Entry, Decent, and Landing (EDL); Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking (AR&D); and deep-space navigation.

Phase II work will culminate with a low-cost, small form factor, stand-alone visual navigation platform, with a cost that is affordable to commercial and small-budget missions and the flexibility to be added to large-scale missions as a piece of a larger navigation system. The final product will have space applications ranging from CubeSats to AR&D and EDL assistance on large-scale human missions.

Potential NASA Applications

NASA applications of the technology include exploration CubeSats and SmallSats, as well as microlanders for precision science instrument deployment to planetary bodies.

Interplanetary exploration satellites similar to MarCO-A and MarCO-B and others being developed for deployment on Artemis 1 are prime examples of missions that could infuse UltraNav technologies proposed.

Larger-scale mission architectures such as LunaNet could incorporate UltraNav as an additional sensor for positioning, navigation, and timing purposes.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The CLPS program can infuse UltraNav into space applications. As one of the first selected CLPS providers, Astrobotic has established a payload customer community and can fly internal company payloads.

UltraNav may form a component for lunar rovers such as Astrobotic’s CubeRover and MoonRanger.

Astrobotic may license this technology to lunar payload customers as well as to SmallSat developers.

Duration: 24 months