ESA Technology Transfer Success Story - Landing zone assessment using Lidar: space technology to enable a new class of drones [Aug/2022]
Canadian SME NGC Aerospace adapted their Hazard Detection and avoidance (HDA) software for lunar landers to enable autonomous safe landing site identification and selection for large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). A new Lidar-based approach to HDA for planetary landing craft is now being applied to Landing Zone Assessment (LZA) systems for large autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) on Earth. NGC and Laflamme, a Quebec-based company that develops UAVs, are collaborating on developing an LZA capability for Laflamme’s remotely piloted LX300 helicopter.
HDA technology automatically identifies roughness, slope and shadow hazards, then recommends safe landing sites to planetary exploration Landers. In real time it fuses the information from the Lander’s navigation system, Lidar, and a camera to reconstruct the terrain topography, building hazard maps and directing the Lander to the safest site that is reachable. The technology was originally planned for use on the Luna-Resurs landing mission. On Earth, there are similar challenges for autonomously landing UAVs, with potentially greater risk in terms of dynamic landscapes and populated areas.
The drone will be moving fast, changing altitude, dealing with wind and other weather, and at different trajectories and velocities compared to a Lander. Yet the rewards are significant, since this type of technology is essential for the entire large-drone industry. The largest socio-economic benefits will come from the technology’s successful commercialisation, as this solution potentially provides two huge opportunities for the sector: it mitigates ground risk to enable beyond-visible-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operation of larger UAVs, and it broadens the range of feasible applications for large UAVs to those where the landing site is not necessarily known in advance.
Lidar can operate under complete darkness and in poor visibility, including snow and fog. Cameras may operate well in perfect visibility, but a key advantage of Lidar is its capabilities under poor visibility. Lidar can complete LZA in darkness, poor lighting conditions, or limited visibility caused by snow or fog. This is essential for a reliable LZA system, which operators can be confident will work regardless of the situation.
In delivery missions without a pre-determined landing zone, the only existing option is to ‘air-drop’ the cargo. However, this is not feasible for some types of cargo, such as certain medical supplies, or anything that could be damaged by the drop. The LZA system would enable the UAV to identify a safe landing zone close to the target to deliver such goods.
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This initiative is led by ESA's Technology Transfer and Patent Management Unit (TTPO) in ESA's Directorate for Commercialisation, Industry & Procurement. The Unit is guiding start-ups, entrepreneurs and European businesses in developing spin-offs for ESA's space technologies. More recent successful transfers can be accessed at: Technology Transfer - Funded Projects. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.