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SmartSat begins $7m plan to develop AI spacecraft

SmartSat CRC has launched a new $7 million project to develop spacecraft that can use AI to operate without waiting for human commands.

It’s hoped a new generation of autonomous satellites would be able to perform more tasks in space and have benefits for industries such as agriculture, farming, mining, and defence.

Funded by the federal government, SmartSat CRC is a collaboration between universities and research organisations that partner with industry.

On Monday, the organisation said its new three-year project would be called SCARLET-α — or Spacecraft Autonomy and Onboard AI for Next Generation Space Systems — and will last for three years.


It will bring together eight SmartSat partners including Airbus, Leonardo, and Deakin University and initially aim to create a set of autonomous algorithms that will allow spacecraft to make decisions independently.

Professor Ryszard Kowalczyk, who is leading the project, said autonomy would be a key feature of the next-generation space systems.

“Spacecraft that can operate independently of ground contact will be able to respond to unexpected events in real-time without needing to wait for commands from Earth,” he said.

“This autonomy will improve Australia’s remote sensing capabilities and other vital services undertaken in space, allowing us to push the boundaries even further in orbit.


“It will help increase the responsiveness and continuity of space-based observations, minimise communication and data access delays, and reduce the costs for both space and ground operations.”

SmartSat added the project would focus on “high impact” areas of autonomy that would be prioritised with its industry and defence partners, including constellation resilience and real-time tasking.

Its chief executive officer, Professor Andy Koronios, said, “As autonomous technologies advance and are embraced, their place in space will expand and present new opportunities for applications here on Earth.

“The next generation of satellite communications and Earth observation will be achieved using integrated systems of satellite constellations operating autonomously and performing multiple tasks in real-time.”

It comes after Space Connect reported in May how a new SmartSat initiative would attempt to pioneer technology that could one day allow satellites to monitor how sustainable farms are.

The “Maya Nula” program intends to see if Earth observation satellites, combined with ground sensors, could also help farmers to better adapt to changing weather conditions and minimise crop failures.

“With the world’s population predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, sustainable farming practices are essential to meet the increasing demand for high-quality food,” said Koronios.

“Through enhanced agricultural intelligence using terrestrial and space technologies, Maya Nula will enable our farmers to deliver higher yields of healthy food, meeting our needs and increasing exports of our agricultural products.

“SmartSat is committed to protecting and preserving our natural resources alongside First Nations people, who have a deep understanding of Australia’s land and conservation practices.

“By integrating climate resilience and supply provenance practices into farming, Maya Nula can help Australian farmers adapt to changing weather conditions, minimise crop failures, ensure a stable food supply, higher efficiency and maintenance of profits and maintain market access.”

Adam Thorn

Adam Thorn

Adam is a journalist who has worked for more than 40 prestigious media brands in the UK and Australia. Since 2005, his varied career has included stints as a reporter, copy editor, feature writer and editor for publications as diverse as Fleet Street newspaper The Sunday Times, fashion bible Jones, media and marketing website Mumbrella as well as lifestyle magazines such as GQ, Woman’s Weekly, Men’s Health and Loaded. He joined Momentum Media in early 2020 and currently writes for Australian Aviation and World of Aviation.

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