NASA funds research on navigation sensors
Your smartphone uses technology known as inertial measurement units to sense its orientation, count your steps, and help you navigate. The same sensor technology is used in robots, drones and other unmanned aircraft to provide information they need to maneuver. University of Illinois aerospace engineer, Timothy Bretl and CU Aerospace were awarded phase II funding from NASA to develop this technology for use in space robotics and CubeSat applications.
The funding comes from NASA’s Small Business Technology Transfer program.
“In scalable and distributed inertial measurement units for space robotics and CubeSat applications, we can deliberately choose a number of inertial sensors beyond the minimal number of sensors required for inertial navigation,” said Bretl, associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering in The Grainger College of Engineering at Illinois. “This scalability enables improved measurement resolution and system redundancy.”
Bretl said the distributed nature of the system means that sensors can be placed arbitrarily as needed in their design, under the constraint that each axis is measured by at least one accelerometer and gyroscope. This technology enables space-constrained systems to leverage redundant inertial sensors for fault detection and isolation, jitter on a spacecraft, and angular velocity without the use of gyroscopes.
“Beyond the systems engineering benefits of this system, distributing the sensors is grounded by previous research that suggests it will reduce the total noise of its output measurements and have important implications for space systems need to maintain low size, weight, power, and cost,” Bretl said.
According to Bretl, this technology can be used in most robotic systems currently using an inertial navigation system. However, the best applications of this technology are in space-constrained robots that can benefit from accurate state estimates or fault tolerant systems.
The goal for this phase of the project is to develop a distributed inertial sensor integration kit including flight-like hardware and beta-software.
David Carroll, founder and president of CU Aerospace said this distributed inertial measurement unit technology will provide attitude and position estimates with accuracies not previously achievable without sacrificing significant additional volume and cost. This will enable new missions with strict requirements.
“The product will provide the volume and capability applicable to the emerging area of CubeSat robotics,” Carroll said. “It will support missions to areas where micro-electro-mechanical systems components are prone to failure. Improved performance, efficient use of space, and fault tolerance are also useful for robots aboard the International Space Station and terrestrial rovers.”
There are also broader, non-NASA applications for this navigation technology. Bretl said it can be used in most robotic systems that currently use an inertial navigation system.
“But some of the best applications of this technology are in space-constrained robots that can benefit from accurate state estimates or fault tolerant systems, like small robots for pipe inspection in the natural gas industry,” he said.
He added that this technology can also be used in many wearable electronic devices for better pedestrian navigation.