University of Leicester developing piloting system for potential first AI space pilot

Artistic view of a novel space transportation vehicle using PLATOR as the main engine (credit: Oliver Hitchens, University of Surrey)

A computer scientist at the University of Leicester has received funding to develop a piloting system for spacecraft that uses artificial intelligence, which could potentially lead to the first AI space pilot in use.

It is being developed as a potential system to control future spacecraft for servicing orbiting satellites and removing space debris.

A grant of £34,846.50 has been awarded by the UK Space Agency’s Enabling Technologies Programme to support a pioneering research project into in-orbit servicing technologies. The project, titled ‘PLATOR (PLAsma Torch Rocket) - Novel Electrothermal Thruster for Space Logistics’, involves a collaboration involving the University of Leicester and led by Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey, a leading institution in the field.

It forms part of a project to develop a spacecraft rocket engine with a hybrid performance profile, striking a balance between efficiency and high thrust. This innovation could potentially revolutionise future in-orbit servicing missions.

Dr Daniel Zhou Hao, from the University of Leicester's School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, will be providing the new piloting system. Technically known as a Guidance, Navigation and Control system, it will use AI and the latest sensor technologies to harness the hybrid performance engine for more efficient and safe in-orbit servicing missions.

The goal is to safely and efficiently transport cargo or spacecraft between various orbits, to fulfil tasks such as resupplying, maintenance, and space logistics for satellites and space stations in orbit around the Earth.

Dr Hao, who is Principal Investigator at Intelligent Systems Lab and an expert in Space Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GNC), will concentrate on developing an AI enabled algorithm to pilot the spacecraft with the new engine tailored specifically to space logistics. 

Dr Hao said: “A key advantage of this inventive GNC system is its incorporation of advanced sensors and AI technology for guidance and navigation. This approach will facilitate improved accuracy, heightened situational awareness, expedited decision-making, adaptive capabilities, and increased resilience to uncertainties during in-orbit servicing missions using a ‘hybrid’ performance envelope thruster, developed by the partnering institution, the University of Surrey.”

The funding is part of the first round of investment from the agency’s Enabling Technologies Programme, part of the National Space Innovation Programme dedicated to supporting UK companies breaking ground in technologies to enhance spaceflight capabilities.

The £2.1 million total is divided between nine projects and will be followed by a series of funding rounds open to commercial businesses, academia and not-for-profit organisations promising cutting-edge technologies that will take UK space capabilities to new heights.

This prestigious grant from the UK Space Agency not only highlights the University of Leicester's expertise in the field of spacecraft Guidance, Navigation, and Control but also offers an exciting opportunity for the institution to contribute to the progression of space logistics and in-orbit servicing.

Dr Hao adds: “Our collaboration with Surrey Space Centre will not only bolster the University of Leicester's reputation in the space industry but also lay the foundation for future advancements in spacecraft GNC and in-orbit servicing technologies. Moving forward, this synergistic alliance will underpin the creation of next-generation space engines, catalysing a transformative shift in in-orbit services and potentially inaugurating the era of autonomous space pilots.”