NASA has captured the world’s attention by pledging to return to the Moon and carry on to Mars.
The Artemis program promises remarkable, era-defining discoveries, and Australia will be part of it.
However, the technical challenge itself is just as extraordinary. How do we set a course for the unknown? And once we arrive, how will we navigate the most unfamiliar terrain there is?
Sydney-based company Advanced Navigation has developed a ground-breaking solution called the Boreas X90. It’s an inertial navigation system (INS) powered by artificial intelligence. It allows space exploration vehicles like lunar rovers to autonomously guide themselves across foreign landscapes. It can also help space launch vehicles and satellites find their way through complex trajectories.
The Boreas X90 provides accurate positioning over millions of kilometres, all by itself. It doesn’t need maps, base station support, remote control by humans, or even traditional fixed references like stars. This kind of self-sufficiency is important when you’re travelling huge distances into space.
With that in mind, the project was supported by a Supply Chain Capability Improvement Grant from the Australian Space Agency’s Moon to Mars initiative. This program backs technology aimed at the new age of ambitious space missions like Artemis, and the lucrative supply chain opportunities that go along with it.
So, if it doesn’t need any of the usual references to navigate, how does the Boreas X90 work? Advanced Navigation CEO Xavier Orr breaks it down into three steps.
“An INS uses the starting point of a vehicle to determine its position as it moves,” Xavier says.
“The INS measures the vehicle's motion (its acceleration and angular velocity) with accelerometers and gyroscopes.”
“Advanced Navigation fuses this data into an AI algorithm, which then determines the vehicle's positional changes from the starting point.”
The accelerometers on the Boreas X90 are notable for their use of quantum technology. This is an emerging practice that uses quantum theory to make calculations well beyond what a traditional computer can manage.
“All accelerometers have some degree of error… but with quantum accelerometers, the errors are magnitudes lower,” Xavier explains.
“Quantum technology enables the system to have an extraordinary leap in performance… this is particularly critical for long-endurance missions, where spacecraft may be travelling for hundreds of days.”
The quantum capability comes from Advanced Navigation’s technical partnership with fellow Sydney-based company Q-CTRL. Since 2020, the partnership has produced navigation solutions for a wide range of industries. Nothing is as extreme as space, though – so in designing the Boreas X90, Advanced Navigation has directly addressed the unique challenges.
“It has the correct heat dissipation to operate in a vacuum, and it’s been tested with acceleration, G forces, shock, and vibrations… similar to what a spacecraft would experience when taking off and landing,” Xavier says.
“We've also minimised the size and weight, condensing the system to the bare minimum, as every gram counts when travelling to space.”
Major space industry players have already taken note. For example, US company Intuitive Machines has signed up to use the Boreas X90 on its lunar lander vehicles. This includes three missions to the Moon to deliver a range of experimental and commercial technologies under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative.
Private investors are queuing up as well. Advanced Navigation reported a $108m capital raise in November 2022, while Q-CTRL raised $39m in February 2023.
These are exciting votes of confidence in technology that not only unlocks possibilities in space, but also on Earth. The principles are transferable to navigation-reliant industries like mining, resources, agriculture, robotics, and defence.
With all this momentum behind the company, Xavier says seeing the Boreas X90 finally come to life is a “huge milestone”.
“The team is absolutely thrilled to see years of research in development progress into successful technology,” Xavier says.
“We look forward to being the first Australian company to reach the Moon.”