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EU project to develop advanced navigation for satellites

www.newelectronics.co.uk, Jul. 04, 2024 – 

A consortium funded by Horizon Europe is to develop laser sensors that will help satellites navigate with ultra precision and enable drones to fly further for longer.

The project aims to unlock new possibilities in terms of space navigation, autonomous systems, and earth monitoring while boosting Europe's technological sovereignty.

Launched by the European Commission under the Photonics Partnership and supported by Photonics21, the project could help to transform space exploration and autonomous systems with new sensors that use tiny pulses of laser light to improve satellite navigation and earth observation.

Currently, the sensors used can struggle with precision in harsh environments with low visibility, like fog or dust. The smallest measurement error can lead to major problems in trajectory and positioning over long distances in space, costing millions of Euros in mistakes over time.

These sensors can also consume large amounts of power, which is extremely limited in space and autonomous systems. High power consumption can quickly drain batteries and limit the operational time of space satellites and drones.

The 'INPHOMIR' project is developing two new ultra-low-power compact sensing devices – an optical gyroscope and a mid-infrared FMCW lidar – that will aim to make space missions more efficient and cost-effective.

Commenting Daniele Palaferri, senior scientist at GEM Elettronica and project coordinator of INPHOMIR, said: "As we aim to explore space much deeper while conducting more complex missions, the need for precise, reliable, and efficient sensors is now more critical than ever. The advanced sensing technologies we are developing will hopefully enhance the accuracy of satellite positioning, improve navigation for interplanetary missions, and ensure the success of space exploration."

The team is developing an advanced optical gyroscope – a super-smart balancing tool for machines and vehicles like satellites and drones that helps them navigate with ultra precision and stay on course. Instead of mechanical parts, it uses laser light to measure how fast and in which direction something is spinning.

Inside the gyroscope, beams of light are sent spinning around in circles. When the device moves or turns, the path of this spinning light changes slightly. Sensors then detect these changes and calculate the exact movement and direction.

The team is also developing a mid-infrared FMCW lidar – a technology similar to radar, only with laser light instead of sound to create detailed 3D maps of the environment.

"Think of a bat's echolocation system, but for machines like drones and self-driving cars. Our frequency-modulated continuous wave (FMCW) is a fancy way of saying that the lidar sends out a continuous laser beam that changes its frequency over time. By doing this, it can measure distances very accurately, even if objects are moving."

The team is developing its sensors with mid-infrared light because it can see through things that usually block normal light, such as dust, fog, and other obstacles.

"For drones and self-driving cars, this lidar helps them "see" their surroundings in incredible detail, even in bad weather or at night, allowing safer and more reliable operation. In space missions, this technology can help satellites and rovers navigate and map out unknown terrains with precision", Palaferri said.

The INPHOMIR project is building its sensors onto Indium Phosphide (InP), a special material that allows scientists to squeeze large computing power into something the size of a thumbnail – creating super-efficient, tiny sensors. The team uses InP to make advanced photonic integrated circuits or 'PICs' that surpass current technologies.

PICs are similar to microchips in a phone or computer, but instead of using electricity to move information around, PICs use light. In a regular chip, electric signals travel through wires to process information. In a PIC, however, light beams travel through tiny channels, doing the same job but often much faster and using much less energy.

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