Vision System Provides Real-Time Guidance for Unmanned Docking Operations

TriDAR vision system
Neptec Design Group
Ottawa, ON, Canada

NASA is conducting a Detailed Test Objective (DTO) with Neptec’s TriDAR vision system for use in unmanned docking operations. The vision system provides real-time visual guidance for navigation, rendezvous, and docking procedures, and is expected to play a critical role in future space exploration missions.

On STS-128, NASA tested the vision system during the mission’s rendezvous, docking, undocking, and fly-around operations. Using a 3D sensor and thermal imager, the system tracked the International Space Station (ISS) from the Space Shuttle Discovery, acquiring the data needed to successfully mate the two vehicles. The system does not use reflector targets; instead, it guides two vehicles together by using information about the geometrical shape of the spacecraft. This technology makes it possible in the future to service spacecraft, including many satellites already in orbit, which were not fitted with docking targets.

Developed by Neptec with the support of NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, the system has applications beyond rendezvous and docking. With short- and long-range sensing capabilities, the system is being developed as a navigation system for lunar rovers and vehicle inspection, and will enable helicopter pilots to land in inhospitable and obscured environments.

The vision system combines LIDAR technology with a Laser Camera System (LCS), which is used by NASA on each mission, to inspect the shuttle for damage that may occur during launch. The hybrid scanner combines a space-qualified, nearfield LCS (based on triangulation) with a long-range LIDAR system. Unlike pure LIDAR systems, the TriDAR operates at distances ranging from 0.5 meters to over 2,000 meters without sacrificing speed or precision at either end of the range.

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