Space imagery: High Earth Orbit Robotics

Are you in the market for on-demand optical images and analytics of objects that matter in space, as taken from space?

Then you are in luck. That’s exactly what Australian space company HEO Robotics is doing – providing images of anything within the Solar System on demand.

“To do this HEO Robotics combines swarm technology with nanosatellites to acquire high quality imagery of satellites, space-debris and resource-rich asteroids,” says High Earth Orbit (HEO) Robotics chief executive officer William Crowe.

The Sydney-based company is a finalist in the 2022 Innovation Awards for Excellence, and was founded in 2016 by Dr Crowe, an aerospace engineer, and Dr Hiranya Jayakody, a mechatronics engineer. The 2022 Award winners will be announced at a black-tie gala event on November 17 at the Cutaway venue at Barangaroo in Sydney. You can reserve your tickets here.

“HEO Robotics was established in 2016 as an asteroid prospecting company,” Dr Crowe said. “In mid-2018, we pivoted to focus on providing commercial in-orbit inspection and space-based space situational awareness services.”

High Earth Orbit Robotics chief executive Dr William Crowe

Today the company provides technology that helps defence, governments and commercial operators visually monitor their spacecraft and other space objects with its in-orbit fly-by inspection technology.

It’s backed by venture capital and high-profile angel investors from Australia, UK, and the US including Y Combinator (S21), and by the Australian Government Defence Innovation Hub.

According to Dr Crowe, a quarter of all satellites still fail before the end of their design life. As a result, the company is helping operators visually monitor satellites to find any damage early – when it can still be remotely repaired and can avoid downtime.

So, how does it work? Its proprietary software platform – dubbed HEO Inspect – transforms earth observation satellites into in-orbit inspection cameras.

The technology identifies an object by taking a picture of it when it’s in space and then compares the picture with computer generated 3D models of known lost satellites and debris.

A positive ID is made when several pictures of the same object in different orientations are matched with a single 3D model.

HEO Inspect accesses cameras that are already in space and on fully operating satellites to take the pictures as they fly past objects of interest.

“This is like having a security camera in space. These cameras capture sub-0.5m resolution imagery of objects as they whizz past in nanoseconds,” Dr Crowe said.

“We generate valuable and unprecedented insights through computer vision techniques. Space-based sensors allow us to get close to space objects and collect data at a resolution superior to Earth-based space domain awareness (SDA) solutions.”

The inspection services are currently available for low earth orbit (LEO) with plans in place to extend the operations to geostationary orbit (GEO) and Lunar orbits by mid-2023.

Indeed, it’s exciting times for Dr Crowe, who said he’s proud the company is considered a pioneer of satellite-to-satellite imagery, and heralded as the first private company in the world to offer in-orbit satellite inspection services.

“We are the first in the world to offer a commercial in-orbit inspection service. Our high-resolution imagery allows us to verify the space object’s identity and its status. We can report on anything from maintenance needs to alerts on space debris within 24 hours.”

Space transparency

With lofty pursuits comes big vision, and Dr Crowe said the company was founded under the belief that space should be transparent and safer for all. The company works to use technology to help humanity and to care for the space environment.

“We value good space citizenship. We are passionate about responsible custodianship, sustainability and trust. We believe that space should be easy and transparent. Our values help us to tackle some of the most complex issues in space for the benefit of all humanity.”

On the innovation front, Dr Crowe said the technology is significant in two important ways.

First, the technology only takes resolved images rather than trying to understand the positions of satellites and debris.

“Instead of collecting a single pixel on an object for position and light curve, we collect thousands of pixels and so can observe the external shape, size, orientation, colours of different parts of the satellite or debris, any damage, what is turned on or off aboard the object and more.

“We call these ‘flyby inspections’, as the data collected is very similar to normal satellite inspections, but we do so as we fly past, rather than conducting a rendezvous.”

Second, the company is taking a unique approach to satellite inspection by cutting down on orbital debris, a growing risk for the continuity of in-space services and physical space assets.

According to Dr Crowe, there are over 300 unidentified space objects in the public catalogue run by the US Space Force – the standard used across the space industry. Some of these objects are space debris, while others are satellites that never turned on and couldn’t be found.

“Rather than launch new satellites, potentially adding to the debris problem, HEO Inspect instead uses proprietary software to operate cameras on satellites that are already in space, tasking them to take pictures as they fly past objects of interest.

“We’re not yet developing our own satellites and will resist doing so as long as there are other options.”

Infinite possibilities

Dr Crowe said the data and insights provided by HEO Inspect will have a tremendous impact on space situational awareness (SSA). The applications range from intelligence, identification, verification, serviceability to debris removal.

Today, HEO Robotics has access to 35 satellites in low earth orbit but that’s about to change.

“We have spent the last year building expertise in space optics design, manufacturing, assembly, and testing. In September this year, we announced our next-generation space hardware, the Holmes Imager.”

Holmes Imager is a telescopic space camera developed by HEO Robotics and designed to be hosted as a secondary payload on spacecraft.

The goal is to gain access to 2,500 cameras in orbit by 2027.

“This constellation will supercharge our HEO Inspect product and help us achieve ubiquitous coverage of the earth-moon system.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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