Project aims to build TOF 3D camera for space missions

A new research project is aiming to build a ‘time-of-flight’ (TOF) three-dimensional (3D) camera for future use in European Space Agency (ESA) missions.

The consortium says that these real-time 3D measurements also have the potential to open up new applications in industrial automation, inspection and navigation.

Cameras are used widely in space, from docking of space stations, during navigation on foreign planets and also for the safe landing of spacecraft.

In these scenarios, 3D data is required for operations, even though the cameras are incapable of providing it themselves. Instead, 3D images are created by mounting several cameras together in so-called stereo configurations, and using complex computations to measure the third dimension. These computations are both power-hungry and potentially unreliable, making them less attractive for space usage.

Cameras have been developed that provide full 3D image data by emitting a coded light signal, and measuring the time it takes from the signal is emitted until it is reflected back to the camera (TOF measurement).

There are a number of technologies to obtain these measurements and a research consortium, including Thales Alenia Space, SINTEF and Terma, is now evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each technology, and how they relate to different space missions.

‘Shortly the requirement and technological study will be delivered to ESA, and in the course of next year, a prototype bread-board 3D camera will be built. The next step then will be to test and evaluate the prototype,’ said Henrik Schumann-Olsen of SINTEF ICT.

Danish company Terma, specialists in space sensor manufacturing, will build the first bread-board prototype around the most promising technologies, which then will be tested and evaluated by ESA and all three companies.