The ORCA (Optical and Rf Constellations on Airplanes) project plans to use commercial airliners as a platform carrying small remote-sensing equipment, which would image the ground as the planes travel on their regular routes. A constellation of such payloads, hitching a ride on the thousands of aircraft flights crossing the continents every day, would provide coverage and revisit frequencies impossible with satellite-based systems and at the fraction of the cost.
The payload, about the size of a small suitcase, is designed not to interfere with any regular aircraft operations, and will be controlled remotely by an ORCA operator (thus, no intervention is required by the pilot or the airline). Unlike a payload on a satellite, equipment on an aircraft can easily be repaired, changed or updated, providing additional advantages compared to space-based systems. The use of existing aerial infrastructure avoids high launch costs, and furthermore does not create space debris.
In DOCS the pipeline and infrastructure monitoring services are primarily addressed, as a challenging application to define the capabilities of ORCA. ORCA is addressed in the DOCS project from the technical, business and legal points of view.
A wide range of EO and Telecommunication services could also be supported by an ORCA constellation, for applications in areas as diverse as Forestry, Oil & Gas, Asset Management, Smart cities, Competitive Intelligence/Analytics, News and Media, Financial trading, Agriculture, Internet of Things, M2M, AIS (maritime applications), etc. The coverage potential of a single fleet (such as the TUI Group fleet) is significant, as can be seen below.
Coverage simulation with TUI Group Fleet for connectivity applications. The yellow area is revisited >20x per day.
This new platform/constellation concept, may even create new markets, not possible with existing systems such as, for example, forest fires or infrastructure monitoring which require absolute real-time information.
Furthermore, the combination of thermal and optical capabilities of the ORCA payload produces products that are unique from a single platform, such as shown below (a fused digital surface model created from DOCS test flight data, showing thermal and vector-based information overlaid on a Google base map).
Combination/fusion of ORCA and Satellite data will produce new products, adding value to both satellite and ORCA data.
ORCA complements existing space-based earth observation solutions, by realising a sub-orbital constellation capable of supplying wide coverage earth observation data with high spatial and temporal resolution, in a sustainable and affordable manner.
Such services create cross-industry value:
Airliners will be able to extract unexploited value from their existing infrastructure
Constellation and application/service developers/users benefit from the new ‘platform’ through decreased cost, as it solves the costly launch issue
A new market is opened for CubeSat and HAPS / UAV payload manufacturers and equipment providers
A new source of data for EO service providers and value-added resellers
ORCA is a most ecological constellation re-using the most reliable platform, making high quality data available to all, fueling pioneering developments. In addition ORCA does not create space debris.
Users and their needs
Various (critical) infrastructures require frequent inspection. The DOCS EO application targets providers/operators of these infrastructures in the Oil & Gas industry as end-users. The ORCA system supplies the providers/operators with high spatial and temporal resolution EO data, allowing the end-users to evaluate the status of their infrastructure on a frequent basis.
Service/ system concept
An outline scheme of the EO service provision architecture addressed in this activity is shown in the figure below. A number of commercial aircraft are equipped with ORCA Payloads (capturing data), which are transmitted via satellite or terrestrial connectivity to a cloud facility for storage, processing, and distribution to the End Users.
Initial simulations show the potential of high resolution (meter class) optical imaging, covering entire countries multiple times per day. COTS equipment is used for the payload, which may be accessible regularly for maintenance and/or upgrade/replacement.
Space Added Value
The ORCA system uses GNSS and Satellite Communications services, as well as EO ground segment (image processing, handling tec.) technologies. ORCA uses/complements/enhances space-based earth observation data and coverage. The added value is that of combined higher spatial and temporal resolution as well as combination of optical/thermal imaging.
SkyfloX & parters have successfully completed the first phase of DOCS in 2018, and kicked off phase two with two airliners (Luxair & Transavia) and 5 aerospace experts in Q3 of 2019. Activities of phase 2 include the consolidations of the ORCA payload design in cooperation with the airlines and using inputs from major end-users including HEXAGON, Esri Deutschland, EarthLab Luxembourg, UTILIS, The Sniffers and the National Observatory of Athens, in order to better adapt its products to the market needs. Furthermore, activities include interfacing with the necessary authorities to obtain the required permissions (if applicable) to fly/operate the ORCA payload in the various jurisdictions overflown by the fleets of the airline partners.