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WSU’s Neuromorphic sensor to go on International Space Station (ISS)

Artist’s rendering of WSU’s Neuromorphic sensor.

A Western Sydney University Space Situational Awareness (SSA) sensor based on neuromorphic technology will go into orbit early next year aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The sensor will be installed aboard the ISS to capture Transient Luminous Events (TLE), a recently discovered atmospheric phenomenon. Associate Professor Gregory Cohen, lead researcher at WSU’s International Centre for Neuromorphic Systems, says TLEs impact the Earth’s atmosphere and have potential to disrupt critical global communications systems and high-altitude aircraft, but our knowledge of their behaviour is currently limited and neuromorphic cameras offer an exciting new possibility.

“Drawing inspiration from biology, our cameras operate more like a human eye than a conventional camera, are extremely fast and data-efficient, making them perfect for use in space,” explains Associate Professor Cohen.

“TLEs happen above large thunderstorms and appear like lightening that travels upward from the clouds into the atmosphere, instead of the usual lightening that travels down toward the ground,” he said.

“These cameras have never been used in this way before, the technology is a really significant innovation, developed in Western Sydney, that we’ll be looking to take forward with the Australian space industry,” said Associate Professor Cohen.

The flight hardware is currently being assembled by WSU at its Werrington campus and by the US Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs; it will be transported to the ISS in a re-supply mission early in 2021. The data collected will be analysed at WSU.

The WSU Neuromorphic system came into prominence at last year’s Avalon Air Show near Melbourne where a demonstrator funded by the RAAF’s Plan Jericho attracted much attention.

The Neuromorphic camera can capture the movement of orbital bodies travelling too fast to be seen by a conventional camera. It uses sensors akin to those in a digital camera, but each sensor is separate from its neighbours and responds only to changes that it detects.

The resulting camera, says A/Prof. Cohen, requires less power but detects more difficult targets in real time, and has a higher data rate. This means it can be small and light – perfect for both orbital SSA and Earth Observation (EO) and surveillance on a cubesat-size platform.

The RAAF is attracted by the fact that the neuromorphic technology works both by day and night and, unlike radar, is not power-hungry; the pixels in WSU’s camera sensors only react when they detect movement, so their power demand is very low.

Professor Deborah Sweeney, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Enterprise & International, described the project as an exciting example of the applied R&D partnerships being driven at WSU.

“The project with the ISS is just one of many applications of neuromorphic systems – the University is working with government, big-tech partners and local businesses to use this platform to solve real-world challenges and create new industry,” said Professor Sweeney.

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