Irish start-up’s AI tech heads for space on ESA Earth observation satellite

4 Sep 2020

Still from ‘Vega lifts off’. Image: ESA/YouTube

Dublin start-up Ubotica has brought its AI technology into orbit aboard a next-gen ESA satellite.

Dublin-based Ubotica Technologies has announced that its AI tech has gone into orbit aboard the Earth observation satellite PhiSat-1, which was launched along with 52 other satellites on a European Space Agency (ESA) Vega rocket yesterday (3 September).

The satellite is part of a programme funded by ESA and supported by Enterprise Ireland, in which deep-learning technology for the in-orbit processing of Earth observation data is being deployed on a European satellite for the first time.

Ubotica’s CVAI technology, built on the Intel Movidius Myriad 2 vision processing unit, will allow the satellite to make its own decisions rather than relying on humans down on the planet’s surface, resulting in faster, more efficient applications being deployed on the satellite.

In this instance, Ubotica’s AI tech is being tasked with automatic cloud detection on images captured by the satellite’s advanced hyperspectral sensor. Speaking with last year, the start-up explained that Earth observation satellites typically store huge quantities of images before sending them all back in one data dump at a pre-determined point.

Using CVAI, PhiSat-1 could decide which images to send back to Earth and which to discard, meaning it uses less power and reduces bandwidth.

A ‘new space’ paradigm

“This mission is the culmination of two years of effort by Ubotica, in collaboration with ESA, to characterise and prepare the Myriad 2 device for deployment in space,” said Aubrey Dunne, co-founder and vice-president of engineering at Ubotica.

“Myriad’s low-power, high-performance compute is ideally suited to satellite applications, and Ubotica’s AI technology harnesses this compute to effectively address the opportunities that we are seeing emerge in the ‘new space’ paradigm.”

Josef Aschbacher, director of Earth observation programmes for ESA, added that the technology is “a prime example of Ireland’s innovation power in space”.

“The AI chip is the core element of the PhiSat-1 experiment and is the first AI chip on a European Earth observation satellite,” he said. “PhiSat-1 will allow ESA to explore the power of AI in space. I expect huge potential from this technology for future Earth observation satellites, which would reduce costs while at the same time increasing performance.”

Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail Damien English, TD, commented that the launch of Ubotica’s technology into orbit is “yet another example of the extraordinary and impressive capabilities of Irish high-tech start-up companies”.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic