Geosynchronous Satellite Servicing, Cryo Keeps CMOS Chip Technology Alive and Level 4 Autonomous Delivery Services Street Ready

This Week in Engineering explores the latest in engineering from academia, government and industry.

Episode Summary:

Communication satellites orbit 22,000 miles above the earth to provide wide area coverage as the earth rotates. That’s a long way up, and once solid propellants are depleted, orienting the spacecraft becomes impossible and the satellite is retired. Northrop Grumman has demonstrated a new robotic service satellite that attaches to communication satellites to provide orientation and extend their service life. The result could be lower broadband costs for millions of users.

Moore’s Law has been around for half a century, in the end of transistor density and computer chips has been predicted for decades. Real physical limits do exist, but a new project from the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency promises to give CMOS technology new life in high-performance computing applications. The key is cryogenics, with new forms of MOSFET operating at liquid nitrogen temperatures. The agency is opening the research to commercial participation.

Autonomous driving technology continues to advance, with Intel’s Mobileye inking a deal to create a large fleet of autonomous delivery vehicles with Silicon Valley-based Udelv. The project promises to create a large fleet of self driving delivery vehicles optimized for last mile service, in response to the dramatic increase in online shopping brought about by Covid 19. The project plans on 35,000 vehicles in use by 2028.

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Transcript of this week’s show:

Segment 1: In a first for robotic on orbit satellite servicing, Northrop Grumman Corporation has announced that the company’s SpaceLogistics subsidiary has serviced a satellite in its geosynchronous working orbit. The robotic service vehicle, called Mission Extension Vehicle-2, docked with the Intelsat 10 – 02 commercial communications satellite. The MEV-2 service satellite will remain docked to Intelsat’s communications bird for five years, providing propulsion and orientation for the satellite, before undocking and moving on to another mission. This is the second docking of a life extension service satellite. MEV-1 docked with the Intelsat 901 Satellite in February 2020 above the communication satellite’s working station in geosynchronous orbit. The service satellite in that test then moved the combination into its designated slot in the crowded space allotted to Intelsat. The current mission supports broadband and media distribution services for Intelsat customers in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America, including 900 video channels broadcast to 18 million households across Europe. With robotic commercial satellite servicing now proven, the next step for Northrop Grumman is the development of Mission Extension Pods, which will be installed on commercial satellites by MRV vehicles to provide the on orbit life extension services while the parent MRV moves on to other tasks. The existing constellation of large communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit above the Earth and the new technology should enable one robotic service satellite to clip life extension pods onto multiple birds on one extended mission. Communications satellites are expensive, and life extension should lead to lower broadband costs for customers worldwide. 

Segment 2: Moore’s Law has been a microelectronics industry mantra for decades. It was first postulated by Intel engineer Gordon Moore in 1965 and it simply stated that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubled approximately every two years. Since available real estate on a silicon wafer is limited, this has required ever smaller junctions, enabled by ever more advanced photolithography techniques and for decades, existing CMOS technology has been predicted to be near its end. While reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated, today’s scale, in the single digit nanometre range, does finally represent real limitations in increasing transistor density. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a US Department of Defense advanced technology lab, has found a way to increase the performance of traditional CMOS technology without cramming more junctions on the same wafer. The key is low temperatures in the region of 77 K or lower, liquid nitrogen temperatures and the sort of temperatures commonly seen in superconductor research. There are multiple problems in operating semiconductors at cryogenic temperatures, and to address them, DARPA has created the Low Temperature Logic Technology (LTLT) program. Aimed at improving thermal and power density in high-performance computing systems, the program seeks to develop CMOS circuits at 14 nm scale using very large-scale integration processes, and FinFET technology. FinFETs are multi-gate devices that essentially take planar metallic oxide field-effect transistors and add a third dimension, essentially adding gates on vertical walls of the device at nanometric scale. These technologies are expected to deliver a 25 times better performance to power ratio compared to current CPUs operating at room temperature. To create workable devices, the program is also developing static random-access memory cells also running at 77K. Future, more advanced technologies promise a 45 times performance improvement. DARPA will use their recently announced Toolbox Initiative to allow commercial licensing of new developments. It looks like silicon is far from dead. 

Segment 3: Intel’s Mobileye business has developed a self-driving system called Mobileye Drive, which has been chosen as the enabling technology for a new project from Udelv, a Silicon Valley company developing autonomous delivery vehicles that the firm calls Transporters. Ramp-up plans are ambitious, with announced production of more than 35,000 transporters by 2028, with commercial operations beginning in 2023. The plan is directed at the last mile delivery problem, the most expensive aspect of distribution, accounting for an average of 53% of the overall cost of goods. With Covid dramatically increasing the volume of goods ordered online, last mile delivery volume is expected to increase over 75% by 2030 and require one third more delivery vehicles. Combined with a shortage of delivery drivers, the timing appears good for autonomous delivery technology. Donlen, a large American commercial fleet management company, has pre-ordered 1000 transporters, believed to be the largest single order to date for an autonomous delivery vehicle. The Mobileye Drive system is designed for SAE level 4 operation using system-on-a-chip technology, combined with multiple sensors and proprietary software. The system uses mapping and lidar, in contrast to Tesla’s camera-based approach. Udelv has been experimenting with autonomous delivery since 2018 and plans to address edge cases like parking lots and loading docks with a proprietary tele-operation system. Mobileye continues to develop passenger carrying applications as well and intends to deploy autonomous shuttles with Transdev ATS and Lohr Group beginning in Europe. Mobileye also plans to begin operating an autonomous ride-hailing service in Israel in early 2022.  

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.