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Design of systems and software for the guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) of planetary exploration vehicles, terrestrial satellites, and unmanned aircraft; analysis, design, and simulation services for these intelligent vehicles.
- Creation: 2001
- Number of employees: 12
- International space agencies // Aerospace companies // Users of geomatic services
A return trip to Mars to bring back samples, a lunar landing mission to locate the site for a future habitable station, a satellite formation flying project to study the solar corona, a new generation of Earth observation satellites to quantify our planet’s food-related resources or to monitor the advancement of forest fires: these are four projects on which NGC Aerospace is currently working!
(Does this pique your interest?)
You’ve guessed it – space is this Sherbrooke company’s primary playground. Created in 2001, NGC Aerospace specializes in designing systems and software for the guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) of planetary exploration vehicles and terrestrial satellites. This high-tech business also makes simulators to validate flight software.
For a successful landing
NGC Aerospace has developed APLS (Autonomous Planetary Landing System) software that makes it possible for a probe to recognize and avoid obstacles, and thus gently land on a secure site, completely autonomously.
“Our HDA (Hazard Detection and Avoidance) technology employs LIDAR – a remote sensor that uses laser beams to measure distances, as opposed to radio waves measured by radar – and a camera to automatically generate a 3D risk map in real time, thus providing vital directions to the probe during its final approach phase,” explained Jean de Lafontaine, President and founder of NGC Aerospace.
This system for landing and avoiding obstacles is being designed for the German-led European mission Lunar Lander. “The goal is to land at the Moon’s South Pole, an area sheltered from the Sun’s rays where it is suspected that there is water in the form of ice,” stated the engineer, noting that the project is currently in the definition phase to demonstrate its technical and financial feasibility.
The Moon and Mars: Straight ahead!
Another innovative technology developed by NGC Aerospace: Terrain-Relative Navigation (TRN), which uses the Moon’s craters to determine location – a lunar GPS, imagine!
To test its software, NGC Aerospace goes… to Sherbrooke’s Regional Industrial Park! This is where the company has a state-of-the-art laboratory, with models of the surface of the Moon and even Mars. “For example, we can simulate, at a scale of 1/50, the last 750 metres of a landing on Mars. We ‘landed’ on the red planet every day for several months during our participation in the development of the Mars Sample Return mission in 2006-2007!” pointed out Jean de Lafontaine, specifying that the company’s projects in recent years have targeted the Moon more often than not.
NGC Aerospace laboratory:
reconstructions of the surface of the Moon (right) and Mars (background)
Credit: NGC Aerospace
In orbit around the Earth
Closer to us (but still more than 800 km above our heads!), NGC Aerospace’s expertise continues to gravitate around greater autonomy and intelligence, through Earth observation satellites in this case.
Of note, the company developed ACNS (Attitude Control and Navigation System) software, which enables the autonomous navigation, guidance, and control of terrestrial satellites, thus reducing the operational costs of these satellites.
Among other projects is the PROBA (Project for On-Board Autonomy) series for the European Space Agency (ESA), which is dedicated to the development of new space technologies. NGC Aerospace’s team worked on PROBA-1 (launched in 2001), PROBA-2 (launched in 2009), as well as PROBA Vegetation (launched in 2013), all still in orbit – this corresponds to 20 years of flawless operation! In each case, the mandate was to develop algorithms that autonomously control the satellite’s optimal orientation and orbit for taking scientific measurements.
“We are eager participants in the PROBA-3 project which is currently underway,” announced the engineer. “This time, the challenge will be to have two satellites flying in tandem: the first one will mask the Sun, enabling the solar corona to be observed from the second. This requires even more enhanced intelligence! This is an emerging field in which we have been working since 2007, when the Canadian Space Agency awarded us a contract to develop GNC software to autonomously control the orientation of formation flying satellites.”
NGC Aerospace is also playing a role in the development of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-3 satellite, whose launch is scheduled for late 2015 and whose primary mission is to study the oceans.
This Sherbrooke business has an impressive track record: over the course of 14 years, it has taken part in more than 90 projects for Canadian, French, and European space agencies and private companies in the aerospace sector, most often as a subcontractor.
Over the years, with a minimum of nine computer, electrical, and mechanical engineers, NGC Aerospace’s team has worked on projects straight out of Hollywood movies: deviating the path of an asteroid to prevent it from colliding with Earth; capturing and removing inactive satellites to prevent pollution in space; determining the position and orientation of a satellite by using the Earth’s magnetic field; and accurately guiding the trajectory of a lunar lander or a rover with no GPS, etc.
“From the company’s start-up, we have focused on two major innovations: the operational autonomy of satellites and the automated design of software – i.e. that the code controlling the satellite’s operations is itself generated by different software. We were the first to develop this in both Canada and Europe. By focusing on these two elements, we have succeeded in enhancing the performance, reliability, and safety of intelligent vehicles, while reducing development and operational costs. The simulations that we conduct in our laboratory enable the cost of testing to be cut to an even greater extent; our lab infrastructure provides an intermediary test environment between pure computer simulations and in-flight tests, which are more expensive and riskier,” explained NGC Aerospace’s President.
Today, NGC Aerospace’s reputation is such that a number of organizations from South America and Asia are currently in negotiations with the company regarding collaboration on their future space projects.
To reduce the turbulences and uncertainty related to funding granted to international space agencies, NGC Aerospace is shifting its sights… to Earth! The company has plans to adapt its space expertise to aeronautical applications.
“As an example, we are focusing on sensors and control systems that can be placed on drones. At this level, the goal is also to make a mechanical system intelligent, by adding payloads and/or guidance functions to prevent collisions with land-based structures or other flying objects.”
The applications are thus numerous: cartography, inspecting structures (dams, hydro lines, industrial chimneys, etc.), agriculture (fertilizing, detecting drought, flooding), mining (assessing the volume of tailings), forestry (identifying cutting sites), etc.
NGC Aerospace is the prime contractor for the Canadian Wildland Fire Monitoring System (CWFMS) project headed by the Canadian Space Agency, which is aiming to develop a new generation of systems for space-based wildland fire observation and the analysis of gas pollutant emissions. The goal: to better detect fires, better predict their progression and the direction of their plumes of smoke, and better assess the impact of fires on our quality of life. In this case, it is NGC Aerospace’s turn to work with subcontractors, including the Université de Sherbrooke via the Centre for Research and Applications in Remote Sensing (CARTEL).
Training the new generation
Jean de Lafontaine is a full professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the Université de Sherbrooke and member of the Intelligent, Mechatronic Aerospace Systems (SigMA) research group.
This businessman and researcher has succeeded in creating a synergy between NGC Aerospace and the Université de Sherbrooke: “My experience as an entrepreneur contributes to my teaching; it’s a spin-in! The challenges that we are confronted with in business inspire me to submit relevant, reality-based problems to my students; conversely, NGC benefits from the regular contributions of skilled interns who often become top-notch employees later on.”
The President of NGC Aerospace has had an interest in autonomous systems since he worked for the European Space Agency on the mission later referred to as Rosetta. This was the mission that enabled Philae to land on the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko in November 2014 – Jean de Lafontaine witnessed the historic landing of the robot, live from the European Space Operations Centre in Germany.
1650 King West Street, Suite 202, Sherbrooke (Québec) Canada J1J 2C3
+1 819 348-9483 / firstname.lastname@example.org
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