Even before modern computers became a reality, science fiction gave us a plethora of examples of artificial intelligence and smart robots in the context of outer space. From Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the computer on Star Trek to C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars and even the fantastic machines in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it seems that AI and space go together.
While those examples are fiction, we are indeed starting to see examples in the real world where we are using artificial intelligence to help commercialize space.
AI Assisting in the Manufacturing of Satellites and Spacecraft
Satellites and spacecraft are complex and expensive pieces of equipment to put together. Within the spacecraft manufacturing operations, there are repetitive and complex tasks that need to be done with exacting measures of precision and often must be done in clean rooms with little exposure to potential contamination. AI-enabled systems and robotics are being used to help the manufacturing process and take away some of the tasks that humans currently do so that humans can focus on the parts that computers can’t assemble.
When working to assemble satellites, not only can AI help to physically speed up the process but it can analyze the process itself to see if there are ways the process can be improved. In addition, the AI is also able to look at the work that has been performed and ensure that everything is done properly.
Furthermore, the use of collaborative robots (“cobots”) as part of the manufacturing process are helping to reduce the need for human workers in clean rooms, and make more reliable manufacturing steps that can be error-prone.
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Satellites are generating thousands, if not millions, of images every minute of the day. Satellites process about 150 terabytes of data everyday. These images capture everything from weather and environmental imagery and data to images down to just inches of every inch of the globe. Capturing images of Earth automatically introduces a number of challenges and opportunities where AI is helping.
Without AI, humans are mostly responsible for interpreting, understanding, and analyzing imagery. By the time a human gets around to interpreting an image, you may have to wait for the satellite to move back around to the same position to further refine image analysis.
The power of deep learning and AI-enabled recognition provides significant power in analyzing images and providing ability to review the millions of images produced by spacecraft. Artificial intelligence on the other end can analyze the images as they are being taken and determine if there are any issues with the images. Unlike humans, AI does not need to sleep or take breaks so it can rapidly process a lot of data.
Using AI to capture images of Earth also prevents the need for large amounts of communication to and from Earth to analyze photos and determine whether a new photo needs to be taken. By cutting back on communication, the AI is saving processing power, reducing battery usage, and speeding up the image gathering process.
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Satellites are also being used to analyze natural disasters from space. Detailed imagery from a satellite can help those on the ground to see victims, determine the course of the disaster, and more. Artificial intelligence is being used to help speed up the response of satellites to natural disasters.
With the help of the onboard AI, satellites are able to determine where a natural disaster is located and navigate to that location. They are also able to automate the image gathering process so that the computer does not have to wait for a human in order to have a quick response.
AI systems are even being used to help analyze data collected from probes heading into deep space to see if they are capable of supporting life. The AI looks at patterns in worlds to help determine if they are habitable or might have some form of life existing on them. Potential planets are then sent to humans for further review.
Monitor the Health of Satellites
Satellites are complex pieces of equipment to operate. There are many potential problems that could arise, from equipment malfunctions to collisions with other satellites. In order to help keep satellites functioning properly, AI is used to monitor the health of satellites. AI can keep constant watch on sensors and equipment, provide alerts, and in some cases, carry out corrective action. SpaceX for example, uses AI to keep its satellites from colliding with other objects in space.
AI is also used to control the navigation of satellites and other spacecraft. The AI is able to look at the patterns of other satellites, planets, and space debris. Once the AI has found the patterns, it is able to change the path of the craft to avoid any collisions.
While this is proving powerful, some AI experts have concerns about the potential vulnerability or failure of these systems. Experts believe that with AI navigation installed on a spacecraft, that the craft becomes more vulnerable. Turning to AI for cybersecurity and craft health monitoring can help to counteract this though.
In addition to keeping spacecraft operational, communicating between Earth and space can be challenging. Depending on the state of the atmosphere, interference from other signals and the environment, there may be a lot of communications difficulties that a satellite needs to overcome. AI is now being used to help control satellite communication to overcome any transmission problems.
These AI-enabled systems are able to determine the amount of power and frequencies that are needed to transmit data back to Earth or to other satellites. With an AI onboard, the satellite is constantly doing this so that signals can get through as the satellite continues in its orbit.
Even spacecraft on other planets or deep in space are using AI in their operation, such as the Mars rovers currently operating on the red planet. On a recent AI Today podcast, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) chief Tom Soderstrom shared insights into how AI is being used for the Mars rovers, spacecraft, and operations at facilities across the world.
AI on the mars rover is used to help it navigate the planet. The computer is able to make multiple changes to the rover’s course every minute. Technology behind the Mars rovers are very similar to that used by self-driving cars. The major difference is that the rover has to navigate more complicated terrain and does not have other vehicular or pedestrian traffic to take into account.
That complicated terrain is analyzed by the computer vision systems in the rover as it moves. If a terrain problem is encountered, the autonomous system makes a change to the course of the rover to avoid it or adjust navigation.
AI and Space: Made for Each Other
Over the last few years we have continued to see a large effort to commercialize space. Several companies are even looking to start tourist trips into space. Artificial intelligence is working to make space commercialization a possibility and to make space a safe environment in which to operate. The various benefits of AI in space all work together to enable further venturing into the unknown.