Navigating the Challenges of Automating Integration and Test on a Satellite Project

August 8, 2023



min read

Navigating the Challenges of Automating Integration and Test on a Satellite Project

In today's technologically advanced world, satellites play a vital role in communication, navigation, weather forecasting, and scientific research. Developing and deploying a satellite is a complex process that requires meticulous integration and testing to ensure successful operation in the harsh environment of space. As increased demand for more space-based products drive satellite manufacturing volumes, automation has emerged as a promising solution to reach scale. However, automating such tasks as integration and test processes for satellites presents a unique set of challenges. This blog post explores general complexities of automating integration and test on a satellite project and discuss potential solutions to overcome these hurdles.

As background, satellite integration and test processes often follow a standard workflow:

  1. Component Integration: Assembling various subsystems, such as power, communication, payload, and propulsion systems, into a verified and validated subsystem.
  2. System Integration: Integrating individual subsystems into a satellite payload or onto a satellite bus and ensuring functionality across all interface requirements.
  3. Environmental Testing: Subjecting the satellite to rigorous tests simulating the extreme conditions of space, such as thermal vacuum, launch vibration, and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) tests, among others.
  4. Functional Testing: Verifying the functionality of the satellite's systems and subsystems under simulated space conditions.

These tests outline verification and validation of the actual satellite system. Prior to building the production solution and depending on the level of technological maturity in the proposed design, a number of risk reduction projects may be completed that require testing of non-production units.

What are the benefits of automating integration and test processes?

Automation offers several advantages. It can significantly reduce the time required for integration and test, allowing for faster project completion.

For example, imagine a satellite development program that develops a new pneumatic subsystem as a high-risk component to the functional design. In order to increase confidence in this subsystem design, the project may validate execution of an engineering model or duplicate subsystem across four times or more of its expected functional life. This strategy could require millions of executions of the subsystem. Using automation allows this process both day and night and with greater accuracy. This reduces the total time for testing and cost and provides more accurate results.

Automation can also eliminate the risk of human error, ensuring consistent and reliable results. If the same example above required human execution, there is a strong possibility that even a nuanced failure is missed.

Finally, by streamlining processes and minimizing manual labor, automation saves time and resources. Accelterating tests like the one described above reduces the cost and the space required for execution.

What are the challenges to automating integration and test on a satellite project?

Despite the benefits, automating integration and test on a satellite project comes with its own set of challenges:

  • System Complexity: Satellites are intricate, often highly customized, systems with numerous subsystems and components that must work together seamlessly. Developing automated tests and scripts that cover the entire system can be complex and time-consuming.
  • Environment Replication: Simulating the extreme conditions of space, such as vacuum, temperature variations, radiation, and zero gravity in a controlled test environment can be challenging, especially at more complete levels of integration. Building test setups that accurately replicate these conditions is crucial but difficult.
  • Coverage and Scalability: Achieving comprehensive test coverage in an automated environment can be daunting. Ensuring all subsystems thoroughly tested and potential failure scenarios are covered requires careful planning and extensive scripting.
  • Process variation: Tests are often scripted to the second, if not millisecond. In the off-chance of unexpected events, automation may need to respond with intelligence to not damage expensive hardware, such as the satellite subsystem under test.

How can these challenges be addressed?

While challenges of automating satellite integration and test are significant, using current and proven technology can mitigate concerns. Engage domain experts and collaborate closely with system designers, engineers, and testers to fully understand requirements. Investing in intelligent automation solutions capable of responding to process variation reduces risks associated with the immediate integration and test process and allows for reuse of this same automation equipment on future projects. At Launchpad, we regularly work with customers to develop automation solutions that work for their processes. Make sure to check out our Digitool solution here and reach out for any additional information.

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