PITTSBURGH — Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering are setting out on a mission to reimagine the capabilities of nanosatellites in low-Earth orbit. Backed by a $7 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) Frontiers Program, the CMU initiative will transform constellations of nanosatellites into sophisticated distributed computing platforms, building the foundation for a wide range of novel applications in public safety, defense and intelligence, carbon mapping, traffic management and precision agriculture, among others.
Today’s nanosatellites collect enormous amounts of raw data, so much that it’s impossible to downlink all of it to earth. The long loop required to beam just a portion of the data to the ground and then make sense of it also creates many latency issues.
With the team’s new approach, called orbital edge computing, researchers at CMU will work to develop computationally capable constellations of nanosatellites, equipped with machine learning techniques that extract valuable insights from data while still in orbit. This will not only reduce the amount of information being sent to earth but will build the foundation for a wide array of possible responsive applications that operate entirely from space.
The new technology will help detect the initial signs of problems before they occur, according to principal investigator Brandon Lucia, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. For example, it could allow for monitoring suspicious activity at large-scale events like the upcoming 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles or identify early signs of wildfires, enabling response teams to make mitigation efforts before forests are ablaze.
The project comprises world-leading experts in critical areas like federated learning, wireless communications, security and networking, and nanosatellite design, including Carnegie Mellon professors Gauri Joshi, Swarun Kumar, Zac Manchester and Vyas Sekar.
The grant will fund a large team of graduate students who will work to define the field, as well as provide the resources needed to build and launch satellites into orbit as part of a test deployment to showcase the new technology’s capabilities. The project looks to overcome many of the challenges of tightly coupled computing, networking, and sensing from space with a resilient and responsive architecture.
About the College of Engineering:
The College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University is a top-ranked engineering college known for its Advanced Collaboration culture in research and education. The College is well-known for working on problems of both scientific and practical importance. Our “maker” culture is ingrained in all that we do, leading to novel approaches and transformative results. Our acclaimed faculty have a focus on innovation management and engineering to yield transformative results that will drive the intellectual and economic vitality of our community, nation, and world.
About Carnegie Mellon University: Carnegie Mellon, cmu.edu, is a private, internationally ranked research university with acclaimed programs spanning the sciences, engineering, technology, business, public policy, humanities, and the arts. Our diverse community of scholars, researchers, creators, and innovators is driven to make real-world impacts that benefit people across the globe. With a bold, interdisciplinary, and entrepreneurial approach, we do the work that matters.