When engineering student Xavier Orr realised an algorithm he’d been researching known as the Kalman filter hadn’t been updated since 1967, he wondered if he might have a crack at it himself.
It was the early 2000s and he decided to take up the challenge as his thesis project.
The results were “pretty black and white”, he says with a dash of understatement.
In reality, Mr Orr’s work on the original time and motion calculations was a potential game changer, with commercial applications for navigation, flight control, robotics and more. Lots more.
Still, there was too much for one bright mind to tackle, so he roped in uni mate Chris Shaw and with little more than shared conviction, they co-founded Advanced Navigation in 2010.
“We were sufficiently confident that we self-funded the company,” Mr Orr says.
“We took out as many personal loans and credit cards as we could … and fortunately, after that, all the contracts started rolling in and it was a success from there on in.”
Fast forward to 2022 and Advanced is vying to become the first Australian company to reach the moon.
Its development of two unique autonomous motion support systems promises to win it a seat at NASA’s table and supply core apparatus to its manned Luna landing scheduled in 2025, the first since 1972.
“Inertial and robust reference-based navigation is a critical capability in space missions, where terrestrial navigation satellite systems such as GPS are non-existent,” Mr Orr explains.
“Our … technology is estimated to deliver $85 million in value for lunar missions, helping deliver heavier payloads to further advance research, exploration and commercial developments.”
The simple breakdown is this: Advanced has developed twin technologies known as Boreas X90 and LiDAV. Its boast is that they can deliver unparalleled manoeuvrability.
Boreas is designed to allow spacecraft extreme positioning capability during lunar missions without reliance on fixed references such as stars.
Neither does it require base station control telemetry, something critical for long endurance missions involving complex orbits and trajectories.
LiDAV or light-detection altimetry and velocimetry, on the other hand, uses lasers to measure the velocity and position of lander vehicles relative to the moon’s surface in three dimensions.
That includes whether or not the ground is actually stable enough to land on.
Where visual references are unavailable and conventional cameras fail due to lack of light, dust or other atmospheric obscurities, LiDAV powers on.
“Spacecraft autonomy requires extraordinary situational awareness,” Mr Orr says.
The product of 25 years’ work with Australian National University and RMIT, the two patented technologies have an added advantage.
Advanced Navigation’s gear is light. It’s specifically designed to achieve more compact flight systems and help reduce a spacecraft’s overall weight.
This means there’s more room aboard for satellites and research equipment or even extra personnel.
Although they can be used as independent components, they can also be fused.
Keen to utilise Advanced Navigation’s offerings is leading US-based space company Intuitive Machines, which provides lunar transport and communication and operations services.
It has three lander missions scheduled to deliver relay satellites by 2025 and, significantly, is contracted by NASA.
The company’s ability to land payloads on the moon’s surface by using lightweight precision sensors is essential, according to its chief tech officer, Dr Tim Crain.
The same equipment is also then used to support data collection for resource prospecting.
“It’s imperative our large lunar payload customers are confident that our systems will deliver the cargo safely and reliably,” Dr Crain says.
“Given the light weight and capabilities of the Advanced Navigation sensor systems, they are well suited for our Micro-Nova, a mini-extreme mobility lunar vehicle.”
Mass on the so-called “hopper” is at a premium, meaning the Australian outfit’s technology is vital to helping it reach permanently shadowed craters and move through lava tubes.
The development of Boreas X90 was backed by the federal government’s Moon to Mars Initiative, set up as part of Australian Space Agency efforts to support industry growth and transformation in 2018.
ASA head Enrico Palermo says it’s great to see Advanced Navigation continue to disrupt the status quo.
“Their latest technology will not only increase Australia’s space capability but create exciting long-term export opportunities, bolster careers in the STEM sector and inspire the Australian public,” he says.
“This is just one example of how Australia is collaborating with NASA on its Artemis program and is building on over half a century of collaboration in space.”
Mr Palermo says the agency has also reached an agreement with NASA for an Aussie-designed, built and operated rover to be included in a future mission.
The Advanced technology will also have several applications on earth.
In March, it showcased fully autonomous submersible drone Hydrus. Experts say it’s destined to revolutionise undersea research.
The same concept is suited to aid aircraft during takeoff and landing, particularly in hazardous conditions and can also measure weather patterns far more accurately and improve forecasting.
In future, it’s hoped the technology will also guide flying taxis and help navigate autonomous cars.