Satnews Daily
September 1st, 2010

European Space Agency... Absolutely MAVelous (SatNav)

A MAVinci unmanned autonomous micro air vehicle (MAV) with a wingspan of less than two metres which is used to inspect land areas. Credits: MAVinci
[SatNews] An unmanned aircraft system guided by satellite navigation has been developed within ESA’s Business Incubation Centre to provide rapid monitoring of land areas and disaster zones — the planes have already helped Spanish farmers in Andalusia fight land erosion.

A MAVinci micro air vehicle (MAV) is inspected before taking off. Credits: MAVinci
The German start-up company MAVinci has developed the new system that uses autonomous micro-air vehicles (MAVs) with a wingspan of less than two metres, to inspect land areas. MAVinci is hosted by ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office at the Business Incubation Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. Here, ESA engineers provide expertise on attitude-determination algorithms and exploiting satnav data. ESA’s optical lab at ESTEC in the Netherlands also helps MAVinci with the calibration of their optical camera.

“The principles for the attitude determination of satellites and for autonomous aircraft such as MAVincis are identical, only the scale is different,” says ESA Flight Dynamics Engineer Michael Flegel. “Where a satellite might use the measured direction of the Sun, Earth or of known star patterns, the MAV aircraft will use the local magnetic field direction, the direction of ‘down’ and similar local quantities. Obtaining meaningful information from the data is an art and the expertise can be applied to both satellites and spacecraft alike.”

The autopilot controls the aircraft from takeoff to landing, and uses satellite navigation to follow a planned track, triggering the camera to image the target area. From the ground, the plane is followed by radio by a safety pilot who can take over the controls at anytime.