Revolutionising optics for Earth observation  

December 14, 2023

A new project with UniSA and industry partners VPG and SMR moves a demonstrator project to production manufacturing.

Image: iLAuNCH Freeform optics project team at UniSA. Supplied

Satellite optical payloads are used to track changes in Earth observation images including environment, transport, and infrastructure through to defence Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). 

Satellites scan over the Earth’s surface and typically the camera payloads need to be wide and gather light in strips, similar to an office paper scanner. Glass optics onboard satellites today are limited in their view by traditional manufacturing processes.  

Through the iLAuNCH Trailblazer, the University of South Australia (UniSA) with VPG Innovation and SMR Australia will mature and space qualify a new optical manufacturing process and materials for space flight applications and demonstrate it in a camera that can utilise this revolutionary new manufacturing capability. 

An emerging optics technology, called freeform optics, is now possible due to the emergence of suitable additive manufacturing technologies. Freeform optics, as their name implies, are free from any constraints of symmetry in their form and shape. Freeform optics, such as mirrors, can now be designed and additively manufactured to take on complex shapes that can provide larger fields of view within smaller packaging sizes, all while being able to withstand the harsh environment of space.  

“This project demonstrates what iLAuNCH is all about, taking a 2021 Defence Innovation Partnership (DIP) concept demonstrator that investigated the viability of Freeform Optical Components for small satellites – and moving it into production using Australian technology for real world application” said iLAuNCH Trailblazer Executive Director, Darin Lovett. 

“Through iLAuNCH we are growing a trained workforce for space hardware, and in this case, bedding down new manufacturing techniques for these novel freeform mirrors for satellites.” 

One of the important requirements in the development of freeform optics is the ability to take the additively manufactured part and process it to the point that a mirror finish can be developed. Traditional surface-finishing processes are unsuitable for freeform surfaces. Additionally, there is the challenge of achieving a stable, durable coating in the harsh low Earth orbit environment.   

The Future Industries Institute at UniSA has pushed the boundaries of additive based manufacturing to develop a novel technology that is set to transform the way space missions are designed.  

“We are developing an optical grade finish on additive material substrates for optical components for satellites,” said UniSA Senior Research Fellow, Dr Kamil Zuber. 

“We will also demonstrate a coating system for reflective optical components for space applications.” 

The project partners, both Adelaide-based, advanced manufacturer VPG Innovation and mirror and camera systems experts SMR Australia have long experience in traditional and additive manufacturing, and product development for automotive and defence sectors.  

The additive manufacturing, moulding and vacuum coating capabilities of the partners enable commercial production of the developed product.  

“With Australia developing new space capabilities and small satellite platforms, it is at the forefront of those developments, including the rising trend towards nanosatellite platforms. The iLAuNCH Trailblazer, in partnership with UNISQ, UniSA, Stärke-AMG, and SMR Australia, is an innovative journey pushing the boundaries of additive manufacturing to revolutionise emerging freeform optics technology. We firmly believe in the transformative power of additive manufacturing and its potential to positively reshape the manufacturing industry. We are proud to be leading those efforts that will enable innovative satellite optics design and manufacturing for Earth observation and other critical applications. Together, we are enabling a future where freeform optics will redefine the possibilities of space missions,” said Co-Founder and Group CEO, Stärke-AMG, Al Jawhari. 

“We are thrilled to be part of the iLAuNCH Trailblazer project alongside the University of South Australia and Stärke-AMG. Over a decade of collaboration has shown that the synergy between UniSA’s research and Motherson’s manufacturing prowess leads to outcomes greater than the sum of its parts. The addition of Stärke-AMG’s innovation focus will ensure that this venture not only propels South Australia into a key role in space technology but also exemplifies the true essence of collaboration. Our combined efforts will redefine the possibilities in additive manufacturing and freeform optics, promising a transformative impact on the future of space exploration. As we contribute our advanced injection moulding and coating expertise to the project, we are not just advancing technology but shaping a future where South Australia becomes synonymous with cutting-edge value-added manufacturing”, said Dr Bastian Stoehr, SMR Australia, Senior Design Engineer, Advanced Surface Technology.  

The project will expand ISR capabilities for space satellites, and satellite platforms in general, through the prototyping and validation of space grade materials, and durable coatings for optical, and structural satellite components using substrates made by polymer and metal additive manufacturing. In addition, the team will explore, validate and test existing and emerging space materials creating guidelines and standards for space materials for satellite components to aid the Australian space sector.  

About iLAuNCH and 2023 achievements 

The Australian Government Trailblazer Universities Program provides dedicated investment to accelerate Australia’s innovation agenda at speed and at scale.  

The Innovative Launch, Automation, Novel Materials, Communications and Hypersonics (iLAuNCH) Trailblazer is a $180 million program building Australia’s enduring space capability through the commercialisation of projects, a fast-track accelerator, and skills development to build the workforce of the future. 

In our first year of operation the iLAuNCH Trailblazer:  

  • Started 7 new projects, and committed over $100 million in total project value.  
  • The recent Expressions of Interest second round of funding was oversubscribed, and applications are in review.  
  • Our industry and university partners are employing more people in the space industry, with 60 new positions being created, including 20 new PhD students.  
  • Our focus is not just industry, we are investing in future skills development from primary school to tertiary, using space to inspire and develop the regional workforce of the future, including:
    • through our STEM partner One Giant Leap,  
    • developing microcredentials courses at the University of Southern Queensland, and  
    • industry and academic workshops with CSIRO and the Australian National University. 

Together, we are accelerating space innovation. 

About VPG Innovation 

VPG Innovation serves as an essential partner within the Stärke-AMG group, a collaborative group encompassing eight companies with operational facilities in Australia and the USA. Specifically designated as the engineering and prototyping arm of the group, VPG Innovation plays a crucial role in the design-for-manufacture process. 

This affiliation empowers VPG to harness the comprehensive array of services offered by the group, thereby presenting clients with an impeccably integrated suite of cutting-edge end-to-end Advanced Manufacturing services. 

Bolstered by a diverse scale of services and an increasing expertise of over five decades, Stärke-AMG stands as a wholly Australian-owned and operated group of companies that specialise in turnkey solutions for design, prototyping, complex precision machining, tooling, plastic injection moulding and fabrication projects, delivering full product and system assemblies. 

About SMR Australia 

SMR Australia, a part of the Vision Systems Division within the Motherson Group, specialises in manufacturing automotive components. The company is a specialist in rearview mirror systems and a pioneer in intelligent camera systems for automotive applications. With over 300 employees, SMR Australia is a significant employer in the southern Adelaide area. Focussed on innovation and advanced manufacturing, SMR Australia is making its mark in developing new and innovative products, recognised as a high-end vehicle component manufacturer. SMR Australia invests heavily in research and state-of-the-art equipment, housed in an environmentally controlled clean-room facility, along with collaborations with world-class universities. The company is also diversifying into medical and other industries aligned with its broad capabilities. 

SMR Australia’s parent company, the Motherson Group, is a diversified global manufacturing specialist and one of the world’s leading automotive suppliers for OEMs. Motherson supports its customers from more than 350 facilities across 41 countries, with a team of over 180,000 dedicated professionals. The group recorded revenues of USD 12.7 billion during 2022-23 and is ranked among the top 25 automotive suppliers worldwide. 

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