Navigation by GPS is ubiquitous because it’s so good and reliable – but what happens if the infrastructure is compromised or out of range? An innovative new NATEP project called GENIE believes it has the answer.
GENIE is GNSS Excluded Navigation Intelligent Enhancement, a NATEP-backed project led by Didcot-based Archangel Imaging. It’s developing a reliable system to back up GPS and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) using a variety of visual techniques and artificial intelligence (AI) to bind it together.
Chief commercial officer Charles Smith says it would be difficult to build anything as good as GPS, but GPS “is vulnerable to jamming or spoofing, and today there’s no fallback” except maps and compasses. Archangel Imaging is tackling the problem with visual navigation techniques including AI recognition of terrain. NATEP’s support will enable it to demonstrate this technology on UAVs. Ultimately the technology could find its way onto manned and future unmanned aviation as a backup to GNSS.
GENIE packs imaging, computing and communications technology into a small device; using machine vision and AI, it resolves what it can see through its camera into a format it can compare with an on-board map. Research has identified close to 50 ways to do this, said Smith. None would be enough to back up GPS by itself, but with a number of methods, “we can pick the ones that work best depending on the location, environmental conditions and other external factors and combine them to provide a reliable and accurate location.”
Work with Defence customers shows some methods can rival GPS for accuracy in some conditions. The challenge is to combine the most appropriate methods to return an accurate location at all stages of a journey.
‘The path is long and complicated’
Currently, the strongest pull for this capability comes from the Defence and Space sectors, but “it’s clear” there will be demand in civil aviation as pilot shortages will necessitate adopting single-pilot and eventually autonomous operations.
“We recognise that the path is long and complicated,” said Smith. “Look at how long GPS took to get accepted.”
Four months into its 12-month NATEP project, the company is buoyant. “We have some some big milestones coming up. The next one is integrating GENIE onto a drone to start gathering data.” He expected demonstration flights to start early in the 2023.
As part of the GENIE project, the company is working with UAVAid, UK-based developer of drones for humanitarian roles. It’s a “fundamental part of our journey” toward GNSS-denied navigation for commercial aviation, said Smith.
Current development is focused on the technical challenges of transitioning GENIE from multiple-rotor drones to the fixed-wing Hansard drone from UAVAid, work that should lead to a miniature version of what the company hopes to have on the market for commercial aviation. That may be a long way off, but the company already has letters of intent with Boeing and Collins which “give validation to what we’re doing”.
Next step is air mobility
“Proving the safety case will allow us to unlock some of the next stages on that journey,” he said. The next step is air mobility – flying taxis – where the challenge is getting approval for their use, particularly in urban areas. After that, attention will turn to the bigger aircraft used for coast-to-coast freight deliveries, then small passenger aircraft and finally larger passenger aircraft. “It’s the series of steps we’ll have to go through to get to the end-game,” said Smith.
Archangel knows it’s going to be a long journey. Right now the challenge is to prove that GENIE is reliable and can be implemented as part of a broader ecosystem to support bigger operations. Its customer base at the moment is in Defence where there’s a more urgent need, plus a willingness to accept higher associated risk. Exploitation in civil aviation is a longer-term prospect.
Said Smith: “While potential civil aviation customers recognise the need, and recognise this is a solution to deliver against that need, it’s not their most urgent problem.
“One of things that drives the team here is solving really hard problems. It’s an exciting time to be in this market.”