4 mins read 21 Mar 2022

World-first Neuromorphic Data Received from the Space Station

Western Sydney University and the United States Airforce Academy have successfully built, designed, launched, and received data from a pair of neuromorphic cameras installed aboard the ISS.

One of the Project Falcon Neuro cameras installed on the ISS. Credit: NASA.

In a world-first, neuromorphic data has been sent back to Earth and successfully received from new cameras aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The two neuromorphic cameras are designed for earth observation and analysis of atmospheric events such as sprites – a high-altitude phenomenon caused by upward electrical discharges from thunderstorms. The cameras were developed as part of Project Falcon Neuro, a collaboration between the University of Western Sydney’s International Centre for Neuromorphic Systems (ICNS) and the United States Airforce Academy.   

Western Sydney University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Sweeney congratulated the ICNS team on their achievements.

“We are incredibly proud of our ICNS team and the University’s world-leading neuromorphic engineering research expertise, which is significantly strengthening Australia’s space industry capabilities,” said Professor Sweeney.

“Working with government, big-tech, as well as local and international research partners, we are helping to solve real-world challenges in the rapidly-evolving space industry. The success of Project Falcon Neuro further cements Western Sydney University’s reputation as a collaborative, young and innovative university with a growing international reach and a commitment to academic excellence and impact-driven research.”

Neuromorphic Cameras

A map of the Honduras coastline overlaid with data from Project Falcon Neuro on the right, and conventional high-definition ISS sensors on the left. Credit: Western Sydney University; NASA; Apple Maps.

The two new cameras aboard the ISS are neuromorphic, meaning their engineering is inspired by biology. Associate Professor Gregory Cohen, ICNS’s lead researcher on Project Falcon Neuro, says these ‘event-based’ cameras, as they are often called, are a completely different type of sensor that operates more like a biological eye than a conventional camera.  

“These cameras don’t take pictures, but rather sense changes and only send those when they happen. This method of sensing the visual world allows them to perform tasks that simply cannot be done with a conventional camera,” said Associate Professor Cohen.

“Project Falcon Neuro is the first use of these sensors for earth observation from orbit, and the data received is the first neuromorphic data to be transmitted from space.”

Falcon Neuro was launched into space on 21 December 2021 to the International Space Station on the SpaceX CRS-24 resupply mission and then were installed on the ISS in January this year. One camera is positioned to point directly downward towards the Earth, and the other is pointing forward in the direction of motion of the ISS. 

On the 24 of January, Falcon Neuro captured data as the ISS passed over the coastline of Honduras. The captured data was later streamed back to Earth and processed using algorithms developed by the ICNS team. 

“The result we saw from the first resolved data image was fantastic. Although it may look like a normal image when we display it, the information was collected in a completely new and novel way,” said Associate Professor Cohen.

“This is only the first step. Now we know the cameras are working and operating in space, we can start using them for scientific experiments and further explore the incredible potential of these sensors and what they can do from orbit.”

Associate Professor Cohen said this is an enormous technological advancement that is vital for Australia’s space capabilities and growing space sector.

“It’s easy to lose sight of just how hard building things for space can be. There are so many technical challenges between the scientific goal and actually placing a working sensor in orbit. It’s really a testament to the absolutely fantastic engineering efforts by the technical team at ICNS and the cadets and faculty at US Air Force Academy,” he said.