First AI Satellite Launched into Orbit by the ESA in Collaboration with Intel and Ubotica

The European Space Agency (ESA), working together with Intel and Ubotica, has launched the world’s first AI-powered PhiSat-1 satellite into Earth’s orbit.

The satellite carries Intel’s integrated Movidius Myriad 2 Vision Processing Unit (VPU) which will allow it to process large amounts of data and prevent useless data being sent back to Earth, which needlessly consumes large amounts of bandwidth.

“The capability that sensors have to produce data increases by a factor of 100 every generation, while our capabilities to download data are increasing, but only by a factor of three, four, five per generation,” said ESA’s Gianluca Furano.

The AI chip on-board the satellite is barely larger than a cereal box. Still grabbed from a YouTube video appearing below

According to Aubrey Dunne, Chief Technology Officer at Ubotica, the Myriad was designed to have impressive computing power, yet a “very low power envelope”, estimated to lead to around 30% data savings.

Phisat-1 will remain in a sun-synchronous orbit roughly 530 km above Earth, monitoring a variety of processes (such as polar ice loss) relevant to climate change research, and soil moisture levels important for crop growth. In the future, the satellite could also look for wildfires and environmental accidents at sea.

During tests conducted in late 2018, Myriad 2 was able to withstand 36 hours of continuous radiation bombardment at CERN without any additional modifications. This bodes well for the chip’s future, as most of its radiation-protected counterparts used in orbit tend to be decades behind state-of-the-art commercial tech.

The ESA expects Phisat-1 and its successor Phisat-2 – already in the plans and set to also have an on-board Myriad 2 – to be part of a future intersatellite communications network.

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