Experimental Earth observation satellite demonstates onboard AI

October 26, 2020 //By Rich Pell
CubeSat uses Intel chip to demonstrate on board AI
Intel has announced details of the first satellite to demonstrate how onboard AI can improve the efficiency of sending Earth observation data.

The company, along with the European Space Agency (ESA) and computer vision and AI startup Ubotica, announced details of the PhiSat-1, an experimental CubeSat satellite that was ejected from a rocket’s dispenser on September 2 along with 45 other similarly small satellites. PhiSat-1 contains a new hyperspectral-thermal camera and onboard AI processing – thanks to an Intel Movidius Myriad 2 Vision Processing Unit (VPU), says the company, the same chip inside many smart cameras and even a $99 selfie drone.

PhiSat-1 is one of a pair of satellites on a mission to monitor polar ice and soil moisture, while also testing inter-satellite communication systems in order to create a future network of federated satellites. The first problem the Myriad 2 is helping to solve, say the organizations, is how to handle the large amount of data generated by high-fidelity cameras like the one on PhiSat-1.

"The capability that sensors have to produce data increases by a factor of 100 every generation," says Gianluca Furano, data systems and onboard computing lead at the European Space Agency, which led the collaborative effort behind PhiSat-1. "While our capabilities to download data are increasing, but only by a factor of three, four, five per generation."

At the same time, about two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered in clouds at any given time. That means, say the organizations, that a lot of useless images of clouds are typically captured, saved, sent over precious down-link bandwidth to Earth, saved again, reviewed by a scientist (or an algorithm) on a computer hours or days later — only to be deleted.

"And artificial intelligence at the edge came to rescue us, the cavalry in the Western movie," says Furano.

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