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Smart Tanks for Space

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SMARTTS (Smart Tanks for Space)

Reporting period: 2017-01-01 to 2017-06-30

Satellites constitute a major element of critical infrastructure for most industrialised countries. While payload technologies advance rapidly to offer enhanced imaging, measurement and communication; improvements in the host platforms that can maximise their overall mission utility are typically incremental, and internal to the main system integrators. The European Union has a significant share of the world space market and there are significant manufacturing opportunities for technology-led innovations that can help maintain and improve Europe’s share of the rapidly growing market for space systems.

In microgravity conditions, establishing the mass of fuel (or oxidiser, or coolant) within a spacecraft tank is only indirectly possible and is subject to large uncertainty. Moreover, in normal satellite operations, fluid slosh is a major challenge affecting attitude control and stability.

Atout Process Ltd, a UK-based SME, has developed direct, accurate, real-time measurement of the distribution of tank contents and thereby also the fluid mass and slosh forces acting on the spacecraft. Atout’s technology is applicable to the vast majority of both commercial and scientific spacecraft, potentially extending mission lifetime and improving attitude and orbit control efficiency - a game-changer for spacecraft platform performance. Smart Tanks for Space are a technology-led innovation that can give novelty and USP for significant technology development and employment growth.

The technical focus is upon bringing a full prototype to flight demonstration, and Atout are already engaged in developing such a prototype while considering requirements provided by end-users. The principal business challenge is to develop appropriate commercial models for licensing the technology and partnering with both tank manufacturers and system integrators.
The project has refined a business plan for the Smart Tank and completed a detailed market analysis. Costs, requirements, opportunities and risks have been evaluated and Atout has demonstrated investment readiness and credibility in the sector and is in detailed negotiations with a number of potential investors. We have established partnership and contact with end-users and potential customers. Collaboration commitment from a world-leading tank manufacturer has been obtained, and separate funding from them and UK Space Agency is now helping advance the TRL towards flight readiness. Through the project, Atout has generated substantial customer traction, made contact with large and small potential collaborators and has attracted industrial co-investment.

This SME Instrument project has demonstrated the commercial viability of the smart tank as a product. Cost, price, scaling, and market models for the opportunity have been developed including multiple exploitation routes and a primary commercial entry route. We have elaborated a roadmap to bring the smart tank to flight demonstration, the top-level development plan has been extended into a detailed work-breakdown for the preferred commercial route. Schedule, resources, recruitment and investment are being aligned to ensure capture of the business opportunity.

Work has focussed on two primary areas, economic feasibility and technical feasibility:

Economic Feasibility.
Preliminary discussions with a major European system prime contractor, and a world-leading tank manufacturer explored the interest and potential of the approach. Then with the help of industry consultants and the coaching provided through the SME Instrument funding we arranged a series of confidential requirement specification workshops involving system integrators and supply chain organisations. These workshops were flexible and informal, involving face-to-face meetings in the UK, Germany, Poland and France, as well as telephone and internet-based information gathering and communication. These workshops have been used to derive the product specification, performance requirements, interface considerations, and strong views on design trade offs.

In parallel, an operational consultation was undertaken with a number of satellite operators and users of satellite data, to develop a benefits model of adopting the Smart Tank technology. In particular, the life-extension value for a typical commercial satellite was refined, and further elaborated to include considerations of risk, manoeuvre planning improvements, attitude control enhancements, data handling factors, and so on. This is now a holistic value proposition supported by robust data, strong inputs to the company’s new business plan.

Practical and Technical Feasibility.
A design exercise was undertaken to ensure material and manufacturing compatibility, and compliance with established space standards in Europe. Undertaken as a collaborative arrangement with two leading tank manufacturers, and in consultation with a number of university groups and technology organisations in four countries across the EU we have established a list of substantial technical challenges in materials, systems integration, instrumentation design and manufacturing. Each of these areas forms a coherent part of the road map and plan for further development.

The primary exploitation route is through the coherent business plan for Atout to develop the Smart Tanks for Space concept into large-scale commercial reality. Presentations of the business plan have been made to potential investors and detail discussions are underway with three of these. Atout has also been able to use the technical results to enable a TRL-raising project in collaboration with a major tank manufacturer and a space systems company with significant funding from UK Space Agency. Presentations of the technology have been made to more than 40 potential supply-chain partners and customers.
Prior comparisons with other techniques have shown that the mass of fluid present in a pipe or vessel can be accurately measured using ECT, and that intricate details of complex flow structures can be obtained at very high speed in real-time. However, in the current commercial state of the art, no direct fuel mass measurement solution exists for space. Values are inferred from slosh measurements (parasitic torques during attitude control), by thermal propellant gauging, via PVT telemetry analysis, and via book-keeping. Combined errors of up to ±10% are easily accumulated.

Before the start of the SME Instrument project, Atout had already demonstrated accuracy to 1% of total tank content mass. After detailed analsys of potential improvements to sensor arrays and improved calibration, we are now confident that our ECT system can achieve 0.1% accuracy. This is a substantial improvement over the current book-keeping methods that need to allow 5% margin on because of the inherent uncertainty of the method. Even providing 1% accuracy is a major step forwards for the industry, and through the SME Instrument project we now have a good understanding of the technical and commercial barriers and opportunities for Atout to exploit the technology.

The end-user of the technology is the spacecraft operator, with the product integrated into a platform by our immediate target customer, the system prime contractors. Around 40% of all satellites are for commercial communications. Short life-time missions and nanosatellites are not immediate target users. The customer and end-user needs are fully aligned with the discrete technical challenges identified in the project (1) to enhance the mission lifetime of the platform (2) improved sales price for customer, operating revenue for end-user, (3) better attitude control for operator through improved pointing control, reduced fuel and power usage, improved manoeuvre modelling, and reduced risk.

The total cost to bring a geostationary satellite to service is around €500M, with a 4-year payback period. Expected revenue is approximately €10M per month. Given a (conservative) satellite lifetime of 10 years, a mere 3% increase in operational lifetime would be worth €36M. Discounted over 10 years at 4% represents additional revenue potential of over €24M. The combined present value revenue opportunity from the 17 such satellites ordered in 2015 alone would be €408M. The Smart Tank allows accurate measurement of reserves, delaying disposal manoeuvres without risk.

The project has demonstrated that there is no competing technology that allows actual mass and slosh measurement in microgravity, Atout’s technology offers a simple and safe principle of operation, and a modest mass budget impact potentially offset through eliminating slosh control hardware, implementation requires negligible additional power and data budget requirements, use of Smart Tanks for Space can help development of improved slosh mitigation methods and propellant management devices through ground-based testing.
Example dashboard for flight dynamics team