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EU funds integrated photonics for space navigation

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The INPHOMIR project is developing an optical gyroscope and a mid-IR FMCW LiDAR, integrating all photonic components onto an indium phosphide chip

A consortium funded by Horizon Europe is developing laser sensors designed to help satellites navigate with ultra precision and enable drones to fly further for longer. The project aims to unlock new possibilities in space navigation, autonomous systems, and earth monitoring, and to boost Europe’s technological sovereignty. The project, called “INPHOMIR,” has been launched by the European Commission under the Photonics Partnership and supported by Photonics21, a consortium of European photonics industries and stakeholders.

The sensors we use in space navigation and autonomous systems today can struggle with precision in harsh environments with low visibility, like fog or dust. The smallest measurement error can lead to major problems in trajectory and positioning over long distances in space, costing millions of euros in mistakes over time.

At the same time, existing sensors can consume large amounts of power, which is extremely limited in space and autonomous systems. High power consumption can quickly drain batteries and limit the operational time of space satellites and drones.

INPHOMIR aims to change this with the development of two new ultra-low-power compact sensing devices – an optical gyroscope and a mid-infrared FMCW LiDAR – that will aim to make space missions more efficient and cost-effective.

Daniele Palaferri, senior scientist at GEM Elettronica and project coordinator of INPHOMIR, said: “As we aim to explore space much deeper while conducting more complex missions, the need for precise, reliable, and efficient sensors is now more critical than ever. The advanced sensing technologies we are developing will hopefully enhance the accuracy of satellite positioning, improve navigation for interplanetary missions, and ensure the success of space exploration.”

Laser Navigation

The team is developing an advanced optical gyroscope to help satellites and drones navigate with ultra precision and stay on course. Inside the gyroscope, beams of light are sent spinning around in circles. When the device moves or turns, the path of this spinning light changes slightly. Sensors then detect these changes and calculate the exact movement and direction.

The team is also developing a new mid-infrared FMCW LiDAR to create detailed 3D maps of the environment. The team is developing its sensors with mid-infrared light because it can see through things that usually block normal light, such as dust, fog, and other obstacles.

“For drones and self-driving cars, this LiDAR helps them “see” their surroundings in incredible detail, even in bad weather or at night, allowing safer and more reliable operation. In space missions, this technology can help satellites and rovers navigate and map out unknown terrains with precision,” Palaferri said.

PICs, AI, data fusion

The INPHOMIR project is building its sensors on indium phosphide (InP), a special material that allows scientists to squeeze large computing power into something the size of a thumbnail – creating super-efficient, tiny sensors. The team uses InP to make advanced PICs that surpass current technologies.

“Unlike existing optical gyroscopes and mid-IR LiDAR systems, INPHOMIR integrates all photonic components onto a single chip, reducing size, weight, and power consumption. This means all parts of a sensor can be combined on a single chip, and the overall device can be much smaller. By addressing big-data challenges through the development of data-fusion and AI algorithms, we aim to create solutions capable of handling massive flows of data,” said Palaferri.

The INPHOMIR sensing technologies are also being developed to improve upon existing drones – including the Horus, Helyx-Zero, and Helyx-One varieties – helping them navigate on their own. Horus can carry heavy equipment, while Helyx-Zero is small and lightweight, which is ideal for farming and examining areas like fields.

These drones are intended to make tasks like surveying land, inspecting buildings, and farming easier and more accurate. Using the AI technology being developed by the INPHOMIR team, it is hoped these drones will work on their own, saving time and reducing human effort.

Boosting European Industries

Developing PICs is complicated and expensive, requiring billions of euros, advanced technology, and a highly skilled workforce. By providing miniaturised and advanced photonic technologies, the INPHOMIR project aims to boost European industries and help create an EU PIC ecosystem.

“Our pioneering advancements in PIC-based hardware technology promise to revolutionise the supply chain management processes of EU companies,” said Palaferri. “With our own supply of PICs, Europe can innovate faster and create new technologies, keeping us at the forefront of technological advancements. We are helping to enhance the EU’s sovereignty by developing a self-sufficient ecosystem for photonic technologies. The project’s success will mark a significant milestone in photonic sensing technology, offering a competitive edge to European industries, reinforcing the EU’s commitment to technological excellence.”

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