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The ESA is Ready to Launch an Earth Observation Satellite with On-Board AI

Posted September 16, 2019

As part of its FSSCat mission – proposed in 2017 by Spain’s Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and developed by a consortium of European companies and institutes – the European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch two CubeSats (miniature satellites), one of which is going to host an on-board AI system dubbed ɸ-Sat, or PhiSat.

Both of the satellites, each about the size of a shoebox, will be equipped with advanced dual microwave and hyper-spectral optical instruments to collect data and conduct inter-satellite communication technology experiments.

“We live in exciting times, the pace at which digital technology is developing coupled with the wealth of satellite information being delivered and, indeed, the growing demand for such data, means there are many opportunities to make a step change for the future of Earth observation,” said ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes, Josef Aschbacher.

The ESA is set to launch a satellite (similar to the one depicted above) with an artificial intelligence chip designed to speed up the processing and transmission of collected data. Image: Erik Kulu via, CC BY 3.0

The main task of the ɸ-Sat chip, which represents Europe’s first artificial intelligence in space, will be to comb through terabytes-worth of images – to be used for the monitoring of vegetation changes and water quality – and filter out ones rendered murky and of low quality due to cloud coverage.

According to Aschbacher, the chip is a significant step forward, as it will not only process the copious amounts of data which otherwise would be sent for processing to Earth, but will also make the delivery “much more efficient”.

“I am very proud that we at ESA and our partners are putting Europe at the forefront of this new approach for Earth observation. And, as I announced at the opening of ɸ-week, our efforts are not stopping at ɸ-Sat-1 – we are also soon going to release a new challenge to develop ɸ-Sat-2,” said Aschbacher.

The AI-powered satellite mission is set to launch within the upcoming several months.


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