Cristian Rodriguez, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, was always interested in astronomy but seeing Saturn through his telescope set his future course.
Michael Pham, an aerospace engineering ‘23, was vacationing in Florida when he was about 8 and was “lucky enough” to see a night launch of a Space Shuttle that lit up the sky with a roar.
Their childhood inspiration landed them at Cal Poly Pomona, where they co-lead a student team that won $200,000 in the NASA Tech Leap Challenge. Students designed small satellite observation technology that can autonomously detect, locate, track and collect data on transient events either on Earth or beyond.
Their design, Bronco Ember, will be able to detect new wildfires before they grow into conflagrations and report those nascent fires to appropriate fire-fighting officials. By measuring heat wavelength and intensity on the ground, the satellite will be able to distinguish between campfires, controlled fires and new wildfires so that wildfire threats can be stopped early.
“We wanted to build something that would serve a useful purpose,” said Rodriguez, the lead investigator. “We’re in Southern California, and last year the fires were terrible. The skies were full of smoke. So, we decided we wanted to detect fires when they were just starting, before half a forest is wiped out.”
The students, who are part of the Bronco Space club, were one of only three groups in the country to advance to the second round and receive funding to begin building their CubeSat, a type of miniature satellite.
To create their proposal, the team spent hundreds of hours through the summer doing research and meeting on Discord. They had to figure out what type of camera would work best, how to move the camera and look at different locations, and how could they program the satellite’s artificial intelligence (AI) to distinguish between different heat signatures to detect a wildfire.
Current fire detection satellites are much larger and more expensive than the proposed Bronco Ember’s CubeSat. They also generally require a human to sort through and analyze thousands of images, potentially causing delays in identifying small fires.
Bronco Ember, which will weigh about three pounds, will consist of a custom 2DOF precision pointing system and edge computing system for onboard AI and machine learning acceleration. All of the parts need to operate in extreme cold and hot temperatures, withstand radiation, and be compact enough fit into the small space, says Tyler Boardman, the electronics lead and a senior in electrical engineering.
The team has only eight months from Oct. 7, the date they learned they had advanced to the next round of the competition, to complete their satellite.
The 22 member-student team is currently working on building a ground-based prototype of the precision pointing system to be demonstrated in January. This includes developing the software for target acquisition, building data sets from simulated wildfires to train the software and refining the gimbal design and controls.
In January, NASA field judges will inspect the students’ work and testing process. If the team has made sufficient progress, they will receive an additional $200,000 and advance to Payload Build Round 2. They would then have a chance to be awarded another $100,000 to complete the satellite, which must be finished by June 2022.
For each winner of Round 2, NASA will contract a suborbital flight test with a high-altitude balloon to launch the satellite to approximately 30,000 km. From there, Bronco Ember would make observations in the short-wave-infrared wavelength range. Data on the accuracy of the algorithms and mechanisms at suborbital altitudes will be gathered to allow for technology adjustments before space flight.
“The bigger application of the Bronco Ember technology is identifying any sort of change on our planet or off planet,” said Pham, co-lead on the project. “Theoretically, the technology can be trained to spot anything — landslides, floods, ocean algal blooms. At the core level, the AI we’re proposing enables computers to autonomously see change. As climate change continues to worsen, and the planet undergoes rapid change, it’s more important than ever to not only see changes but rapidly respond as well.”
Bronco Ember is the second satellite to be built by a Bronco Space team. Bronco Sat-1,the first satellite built by club members is scheduled for launch in June 2022.
Bronco Space has about 100 members who major in aerospace, electrical, computer and mechanical engineering; computer science and physics. Annikka Rodriguez, an aerospace engineering senior, is the current president of the two-year old club.
To work on their projects, students have access to a variety of campus facilities including: advanced manufacturing and aerospace labs containing a vacuum chamber, CNC machines, mills, lathes, welding stations and foundry stations. There is also a Dynamic Structures Lab equipped for materials testing.
Members of the Bronco Ember team include:
- Controls team: Julian Garcia (lead), Enrique Navas and Michael Quach
- Mechanisms: Scott Johnson (lead), Jonathan Camilleri, Nick Shewchuk, Juan Carlos Macias and Chase Pelliterri
- Electronics: Tyler Boardman (lead), Clayton Clark, Derek Mata and Thang Nguyen
- Software: Clayton Clark (lead), Thang Nguyen and Celine Mangahas
- Systems: Katie Ruiz and Jainav Gohel
- Integration and Test: Zachary Gaines and Jacqueline Llamas
The Bronco Space advisor is Tarek Elsharhawy, a lecturer in aerospace, electrical and mechanical engineering and a 1985 Cal Poly Pomona alumnus.
“Seeing our young student organization win this competition means that anyone can try to take their place in the space industry,” Pham said. “From a broader perspective, it reflects the excitement that is in the space industry in general. The doors are really opening up for people to be a part of what used to be an elite club of people working for NASA or in the space industry at large.”
For these students, a career in a space related industry has always been a possibility, explained Boardman. In their lifetimes, the Space Shuttle had been making regular flights for years. Space X, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were founded. SpaceX and Blue Origin have both launched non-astronaut civilians into orbit.