Australia's National Intelligence Office seeks 'smart' satellites

Looking to demonstrate the application of miniaturised satellite systems with on-board machine learning and artificial intelligence applications.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Australian government, through the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), is hoping to progress research on "smart" satellites.

In a request for tender (RFT), ONI is seeking a provider of research and engineering services in order to develop, build, test, launch, and operate a prototype or proof-of-concept smart satellite to demonstrate the application of miniaturised satellite systems with on-board machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) applications. 

ONI formally came into being on 20 December 2018 following the passage of the Office of National Intelligence Act 2018 a month prior.

The National Intelligence Community (NIC) encompasses 10 Australian security and intelligence agencies: ONI, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Defence Intelligence Organisation, as well as the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the intelligence functions of the Australian Federal Police, Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, and The Department of Home Affairs.

ONI is responsible for enterprise-level management of the NIC, aiming to provide a single point of accountability to the prime minister and National Security Committee of Cabinet.

The role of the NIC Innovation, Science and Research (IS&R) Branch within ONI is to lead a structured approach to the NIC's responses to technological change.

It aims to facilitate how government, industry, and academia can come together to address capability needs and capitalise on opportunities created by scientific advances and technological change.

National Intelligence Community (NIC) Satellite (NICSAT) is an unclassified proof-of-concept program established within the IS&R Branch to better understand the application of miniaturised satellite systems, including constellations of CubeSat's, on behalf of the NIC.

According to the NIC, this includes an experimental program to enable "bespoke" research and development to perform on-board ML and AI.

"In 2019, ONI concluded an extensive theoretical study confirming advanced in-orbit data processing through machine learning and artificial intelligence is feasible," ONI wrote.

The RFT states the core objective of the work is to complete a demonstration of on-board ML applications against multiple data sources.

ONI wants to test the feasibility of on-board ML applications against both imagery and radio frequency data; the application of ML methods for autonomous space-based AI operations; and the potential for the delivery of "actionable information from AI-capable space-based platforms directly to the user, minimising the need to downlink all the data to the ground station".

"The service provider shall perform all activities necessary to manage, design, develop, construct, integrate, test, launch, commission, and support the 'smart' satellite solution," the RFT says.

"The service provider shall analyse the requirements … and work collaboratively with ONI and the NIC to develop and validate a design for the NICSAT Mission System and the requirements for the support, operating model, and demonstration aspects."

ONI said the basic elements of a satellite solution to be supplied are one or more commercial off-the-shelf collection payloads, combined with on-board computing capability capable of applying ML and AI models.

The service provider is also expected to provide R&D into on-board AI processing and algorithm development, application, and ongoing updating and management, as well as project management services such as managing the procurement of a launch provider, and any licenses, permits, approvals, consents, filings, registrations, and authorisations required for the launch, the operation of the satellite or the payload in orbit, and communications to and from the satellite.

ONI wants the satellite launch by June 2021.

The tender closes on 5 June 2020


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