Swarms of smart nano-satellites may offer global connectivity (With video)

NASA CubeSats

A set of NanoRacks CubeSats is photographed by an Expedition 38 crew member.

Credit: NASA

Using artificial intelligence and satellites the size of a loaf of bread could be a game changer for space industry

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One day we may have global connectivity -- even in the remotest parts of the world -- thanks to teams of tiny, intelligent, swarming satellites called CubeSats.

In an industry that doesn't like change and definitely doesn't like to rely on the latest and greatest in technology, CubeSats appear to be changing the game for the space industry.

And one of the things these cube-shaped satellites could be changing in the next 10 years is how to help people in impoverished or remote parts of the world get long-sought Internet access.

"I think we could use CubeSats for Internet connectivity," said Craig Clark, founder and CEO of Clyde Space Ltd. "If you're in an area of the world with censored Internet service, suddenly you have service that nobody can switch off." The service comes with "fairly low data rates and it wouldn't really be Internet yet because it's just one-way -- but eventually it will be two-way so you can ask for specific content."

Clark has been working with the folks at Outernet, a U.S.-based start-up focused on providing free content access via satellites that circle closely around the earth.

"They have the ideas for their applications and services, and we make their ideas a reality," said Clark, who was in St. Louis last week speaking at DARPA's Wait, what? Forum on future technologies. "It could be a game changer."

The challenge of getting Internet access to the two out of three people around the world who don't have access to a fast and affordable connection has been a major project for a lot of researchers, including some working at high-tech powerhouses Google and Facebook.

Google, for instance, has been working with high-altitude balloons flying around the globe on stratospheric winds about 12.4 miles above the Earth.

Facebook, which like Google would like to bring more people online so they can be added to their rosters of monthly users, is working with drones to bring Internet access to remote areas.

Small satellites, according to Clark, would be good for this usage because they're far less expensive to build and launch than traditional satellites and they can be used in intelligent "swarms."

Based in Glasgow, Scotland, Clyde Space is focused on designing and building small and micro-sized spacecraft systems. Right now the company is building about 4 CubeSats a month, but Clark hopes they'll increase production to five to 10 per month by this time next year.

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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