Space Technologies on the Ground, under Water and in the Air

Speaking of the space technologies’ application here, “on the ground”, certainly, nobody provides using special small-lot and, for this reason, expensive components. The point is, first, of the “space” reliability level of the ground systems, and, second, of the use of “dual-purpose” components – for example, electronics and optics which may be manufactured both for military needs and in large lots, that is, for commercial distribution. An interesting trend of recent years is also “backdraught” – using conventional “store” components in space vehicles.

Orbit access levels

Present-day electronic component base in the international classification is divided into four conditional categories – Consumers, Industry, Military and Space. The difference between them consists, primarily in the operation mode. Thus, Commercial components are designed for the temperature range from 0 to +75°C.

Many people certainly paid attention that outside in severe frost various smart-phones, digital cameras and other household electronic gadgets stop working at all or work in an unstable manner. This is particularly due to the application of inexpensive, mass-scale components which made these devices commonly affordable.

Industrial and Military class electronic components undergo extra tests and are designed for a wide temperature range from –40 to +125°С. As a rule, though not necessarily, this class chips are manufactured in more expensive cermet housings which is not only considered more reliable but provides extra “anti-fool” protection – if, say, in a military product plastic-coated chips are found, it is at least worth thinking over. Though, some experts state that in a number of performance indicators a plastic housing is more preferable for using in Industrial and Military classes, – for example, they have a better vibration resistance.

Space – these electronic components must withstand not only high and low temperatures but also be radiation-resistant. Space radiation, especially, not background but induced by high-velocity particles – is rather highly biocidal. And mere shielding here is not sufficient, that is, it is not enough, theoretically speaking, to place Commercial or even Military class electronics into a thick shielded housing and “launch” this instrument into the space. High-velocity particles, when bombing this shield, will cause even higher radio-active radiation inside it, making this housing into a kind of X-ray emitter.

Russian chips are officially not classified on this principle. They are classified on the testing level (plant in-house QC Dept., customer’s representative, in case of military-industrial complex, this is military representative, and higher “state acceptance” attended by high-class experts – for the products designed for the same space industry). However, it does not at all mean that the product performance characteristics in this case comply with the international specifications. That is, QC Department acceptance does not mean that the microchip corresponds just to Commercial standard, etc. And only the fact of the military representative acceptance is the evidence of the Military level. Therefore, in each specific case it is necessary to review the electronic components’ specification but, as everybody knows, this is necessary in any case.

From the counter – to the launching pad?

In terms of their performance specifications Consumers microchips and other electronic components often are similar to the Military and Space ones, their difference (not always, but in some cases) is in the reliability and serviceability in extreme conditions. Therefore quite often a temptation occurs to purchase mass-scale Commercial class electronics, hold its extra tests, reject bad chips and use good ones to produce inexpensive civil-purpose spacecraft. Moreover that chips which failed to pass Military and Space level tests are quite often sold as Commercial.

It is worth mentioning that this is the way taken by not only Chinese but also European and American manufacturers. Moreover, it is well known that on low orbits (300-500 km) space vehicles are still protected against space radiation by the magnetic field of the Earth and only some high-velocity particles are capable of causing the satellite equipment failure. It does happen sometimes (the Fobos-Grunt satellite is said to have failed for this particular reason) but it requires a truly unfavourable combination of circumstances, all the on-board systems of the space vehicles are backed up on many tiers.

There is a certain temptation to take this way now, when international sanctions were adopted against the Russian military-industrial complex (and it basically means the ban for the delivery of Military and Space class electronics). However, first, Chinese suppliers are also ready to join the sanctions and, second, using Commercial class components is still too risky due to their non-guaranteed reliability. As for high-orbit satellites (about 1,000 km) it is just impossible.

There is another reason – there are military and space products requiring special-purpose, small-lot and having no civil peers components. Later, some time after, some of these developments will retire from the scene, then they’ll be widely used in commercial and household device and yield profits to their manufacturers by means of mass-scale production (and some of them will remain small-lot and will never enjoy a wide demand).

This small-lot manufacture must be financed by the state because none of the Russian (and made equal to them – Byelorussian) manufacturers will undertake it independently. It is not risks that matter – R&D costs will have to be included into the cost-price, and with the lots of several hundred chips, every chip will cost tens if not hundreds thousand dollars. The state itself will refuse to buy them at this price. But, primarily, it is new small-lot components which Russian manufacturers are especially good at (and it means they should be the main focus at the import-substitution initial stage).

Robots and unmanned air vehicles

One of the space technologies widely applied “on the ground, under water and in the sky” are automatic vehicles, robots and unmanned air vehicles – aviation, marine and ground. Our experts came to the conclusion that it was safer, cheaper and more cost-efficient to send automatic vehicles but not people into the space as far back as during the preparation for the landing onto the Moon. Today nobody is surprised by the unmanned air vehicles and other robotics products – they have strongly ingrained into our daily routine and mass media messages that during a local conflict a UAV was hit appear every quarter, if not every month.

In this area reliability issues enjoy extra attention. It will be discussed also at the 25th International Conference “Extreme Robotics 2014” to be held in St. Petersburg in early October (in the framework of the Forum “Russian Industrialist” and St. Petersburg International Innovation Forum). The following topics were selected as the conference priority areas: theory and methods of robotics systems design, robotics for extreme conditions, military and counter-terroristic robotics, robotics in medicine, standardization in robotics.

We remind you that the practical application of ground mobile robotics systems for the localization of man-caused emergencies in the USSR is considered to have started from the liquidation of the Chernobyl catastrophe consequences. Though at that time most of the robots were imported and some of them could not operate in high radioactivity conditions. It was this fact that promoted new topical problem trends in robotics which later was called “extreme”.

As far as marine drones are concerned, their use in the world practice is passing to a new level: in September 2014 Boeing and Liquid Robotics signed an agreement of the development of the robots for autonomous ocean patrolling. These drones are supposed to be used for tracking submarines, detecting vessels transporting drugs or involved in poacher fishing. Now hundreds and thousands of robots may be created which will be united in a kind of a “search network”.

Currently Liquid Robotics Company already manufactures Wave Glider SV3 ocean robot the cost of which is US $ 300,000. It is used mostly for research purposes or supporting fishery campaigns. This marine vehicle can work independently for months in the open sea receiving power from solar batteries or from waves. Activities are underway to use other alternative power types, including bio-fuel, in such vehicles.

In terms of technological development of such vehicles Russia is going along the same path, experiencing hereby problems traditional for the closed systems. “Whereas abroad submarine vehicles are made in cooperation of 3-5 countries, we do everything ourselves”, Director of the Institute of Marine Technology Problems of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences Leonid Naumov comments on the situation. He made this statement at the opening ceremony of the laboratory for telecommunications, instrument-building and marine geology based on the premises of the Institute of Cybernetics of Tomsk Polytechnic University. The main “payback” of these laboratories is training the staff for the development of engineering equipment for the world ocean exploration, including underwater robots.

Stanislav Kovalski

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