Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center have developed a machine-to-machine (M2M) network navigation protocol to enable spacecraft to perform autonomous navigation and positioning, even in the most challenging environments. Designed to facilitate deep space communication between spacecraft without the need for ground system support, this enhancement of onboard navigation capabilities allows assets to operate accurately in GPS-denied areas, determine position fixes relative to other assets, and minimize reliance on operator intervention. Additionally, implementation of the network architecture may be as simple as a software update, with no requirement of extensive designated hardware. Through providing these benefits, the NASA technology could improve the operational capabilities of aircraft navigation systems; advance autonomy, coordination, and safety features in unmanned aerial vehicles; and serve as a substitute or supplement for GPS positioning.
As space operations grow in both the number of systems deployed and the distances at which those systems operate, reliance on overloaded Earth-based navigation support has increasingly become a liability to mission performance. The Multi-Craft Autonomous Positioning System (MAPS) is a network-based, satellite-to-satellite navigation protocol designed to improve the autonomy of deep space assets, but is applicable to a variety of transport vehicles, aircraft, and other equipment on Earth.
MAPS operates by embedding specific state information into its data packet transmission headers. Other assets then use this information, combined with transmission and reception times, to determine their own position fixes autonomously. Additionally, assets within the network act as relays, passing along information to recipients that would not otherwise be able to establish a direct communication link to a sender.
The NASA-developed protocol essentially creates a decentralized Internet architecture for M2M communications capable of providing navigation information without the need for external intervention, though such intervention is still possible. By enabling assets to communicate with one another and calculate positioning autonomously, the technology opens a new set of operational capabilities with assets that have safer autopilots, higher degrees of coordination, and more versatile applications.