Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering are setting out on a mission to reimagine the capabilities of nanosatellites (smallsats) in LEO. Backed by a $7 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) Frontiers Program, the CMU initiative will transform constellations of smallsats into sophisticated, distributed, computing platforms, building the foundation for a wide range of novel applications in public safety, defense and intelligence, carbon mapping, traffic management and precision agriculture, among others.
Today’s smallsats collect enormous amounts of raw data, so much that it’s impossible to downlink all of it to earth. The long loop required to beam just a portion of the data to the ground and then make sense of it also creates many latency issues.
With the team’s new approach, called orbital edge computing, researchers at CMU will work to develop computationally capable constellations of smallsats, equipped with machine learning techniques that extract valuable insights from data while still on-orbit. This will not only reduce the amount of information being sent to earth but will build the foundation for a wide array of possible responsive applications that operate entirely from space.
The new technology will help detect the initial signs of problems before they occur, according to principal investigator Brandon Lucia, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. For example, it could allow for monitoring suspicious activity at large-scale events such as the upcoming 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles or identify early signs of wildfires, enabling response teams to make mitigation efforts before forests are ablaze.
The project comprises world-leading experts in critical areas like federated learning, wireless communications, security and networking, and smallsat design, including Carnegie Mellon professors Gauri Joshi, Swarun Kumar, Zac Manchester and Vyas Sekar.
The grant will fund a large team of graduate students who will work to define the field, as well as provide the resources needed to build and launch satellites into orbit as part of a test deployment to showcase the new technology’s capabilities. The project looks to overcome many of the challenges of tightly coupled computing, networking, and sensing from space with a resilient and responsive architecture.
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