Aerospace Sciences

Autonomous systems adapting to uncertain and contested operating conditions

The Guidance, Navigation and Control Technical Committee advances techniques, devices and systems for guiding and commanding flight vehicles.

Across the guidance, navigation and control community, autonomous and cooperative systems for complex missions and environments have continued to improve in robustness and resilience.

In January, NASA updated post-flight analysis from the Artemis I mission, in which a Space Launch System rocket launched an unoccupied Orion capsule toward lunar orbit in November 2022. Analysis reports indicate that SLS performed nominally, including the new adaptive augmenting control technology.

In November, SpaceX launched its second fully stacked Starship-Super Heavy. The stages separated as planned over the Gulf of Mexico, but Super Heavy exploded shortly after and Starship was lost, prompting FAA to announce that SpaceX would conduct a “mishap” investigation. The November flight demonstrated the new electronic thrust control vector system developed after the truncated first attempt in April, in which communications were lost. 

NASA has also made contributions in navigation. In May, the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE, satellite demonstrated cooperative navigation with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. CAPSTONE also flew a near-rectilinear halo orbit for over six months, allowing for further study of dynamics and control of nontraditional, fuel-efficient orbits.

In July, NASA announced its Tipping Point selections, which included Psionic of Virginia. Psionic received the license for NASA’s Navigation Doppler Lidar The lidar will be integrated in lunar landers under development. In May, Psionic received additional Phase-3 Small Business Innovation Research funding from NASA and the U.S. Defense Department to develop a high-powered photonic integrated circuit to shrink the government lidar from 12 kilograms to under 3 kg for a commercial version.

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defense Industry and Space’s Joint Research Center released a report in March on its assessment of alternative position, navigation and timing solutions. Per the report, Locata of Australia demonstrated the highest positioning accuracy with its network of LocataLites ground states. Also exceeding industry benchmarks were Virginia-based Satelles, which operates its Satellite Time and Location service on low-Earth orbit satellites including the Iridium constellation, and Virginia-based NextNav’s TerraPoiNT, which uses several sources including TerraPoiNT transmitters. In July, NextNav demonstrated its alternative navigation capability on TerraPoiNT using existing LTE and 5G cellular signals in San Jose, California. In May, Spirent Communications of the U.K. announced certification of its SimXona satellite constellation simulator by California-based Xona Space Systems, which is developing the Pulsar small-satellite PNT service also envisioned for LEO operation.

There was also a lot of movement in the artificial intelligence and machine learning community. DARPA announced in February that its Air Combat Evolution program executed the first live-flight demonstration of the X-62A Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft in December 2022. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory leveraged lessons learned from the X-62A flights and in July demonstrated the first flight of its machine learning-trained algorithms on an unoccupied XQ-58A Valkyrie. In April, an AI technology jointly developed by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States was demonstrated in a live trial on unoccupied intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. In September, the U.K. Royal Navy landed a W Autonomous Systems autonomous transport drone, named HCMC, onto the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales.

Contributor: Shawn Stephens

Autonomous systems adapting to uncertain and contested operating conditions