Draper prepares for demonstration aboard high altitude balloon
CAMBRIDGE, MA – Satellite imagery plays a key role today in tasks ranging from monitoring climate change to deciding when and where to plant crops. Data from hyperspectral sensors can identify materials not visible in conventional imaging or to the human eye, such as mineral content in soil and chemical properties of plants. This offers officials monitoring climate change the ability to view new metrics including the effect of photosynthesis on the Earth’s carbon balance. However, hyperspectral imagers have typically been used in space aboard satellites that cost approximately $100 million or more, and weigh hundreds, or thousands, of pounds. Due to size and expense, few of these sensors orbit the Earth, limiting the frequency that they can fly over particular locations, which makes it difficult to discern trends.
Draper seeks to change this equation by laying the groundwork for a large constellation of tiny, inexpensive hyperspectral imaging satellites that could provide daily observations of individual areas of interest, enabling users to quickly spot issues and track trends. Draper is taking the first step toward demonstrating the feasibility of this concept by building an instrument small enough to fit into a shoebox, and flying it aboard a high altitude balloon in the spring of 2016.
“The balloon flight is a key step toward demonstrating that we can make these satellites 100th the cost, which can enable daily observations that provide valuable new information to those monitoring climate change as well as anyone else who is interested in details about changes taking place on the Earth’s surface,” said Séamus Tuohy, Draper’s space systems director.
The balloon will be launched by University of Alabama, Huntsville, students. It will fly near the edge of space, gathering hyperspectral data as it moves from Huntsville into northern Georgia. The students designed the mission as well as the interface between the hyperspectral instrument and the balloon.
Following the balloon flight, the instrument could be demonstrated in space on a CubeSat. The project takes advantage of Draper’s development of small instruments for NASA missions like the Ultraviolet-Visible Spectrometer for NASA’s LADEE mission in 2013. A follow-on constellation would harness the company’s work in image and data analytics to process the imagery, as well as its experience with autonomous systems to automate the labor intensive process of operating the satellites.
Draper develops precision instrumentation systems that exceed the state-of-the-art in key parameters (input range, accuracy, stability, bandwidth, ruggedness, etc.) that are designed specifically to operate in our sponsor’s most challenging environments (high shock, high temperature, radiation, etc.). As a recognized leader in the development and application of precision instrumentation solutions for platforms ranging from missiles to people to micro-Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Draper finds or develops state-of-the-art components (gyros, accelerometers, magnetometers, precision clocks, optical systems, etc.) that meet the demanding size, weight, power and cost needs of our sponsors and applies extensive system design capabilities consisting of modeling, mechanical and electrical design, packaging and development-level testing to realize instrumentation solutions that meet these critical and demanding needs.
Draper combines specific domain expertise and knowledge of how to apply the latest analytics techniques to extract meaningful information from raw data to better understand complex, dynamic processes. Our system design approach encompasses effective organization and processing of large data sets, automated analysis using algorithms and exploitation of results. To facilitate user interaction with these processed data sets, Draper applies advanced techniques to automate understanding and correlation of patterns in the data. Draper’s expertise encompasses machine learning (including deep learning), information fusion from diverse and heterogeneous data sources, optimized coupling of data acquisition and analysis and novel methods for analysis of imagery and video data.