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Tesla buys Perbix industrial automation company – Robotics and Automation News (press release)

By Automation, Automotive Industry, Editor's Choice, News, Sensors

Tesla has been working with engineering company Perbix for some time, and lately has faced increased pressure in its manufacturing process.

The company says it has faced manufacturing “bottlenecks” as it attempts to meet the high demand for its new Model 3 electric car.

Now, Tesla has apparently decided to invest more money in the manufacturing process.

Tesla last year bought Grohmann Engineering, an engineering company similar to Perbix.

According to Bloomberg, Perbix chairman James Dudley will receive $10.5 million in Tesla stock, although full financial details of the deals are yet to be disclosed.

Bloomberg adds that Tesla is now planning to expand its operations in Minneapolis, where Perbix is based.

Separately, Tesla is reported to be in talks with Chinese authorities about building factory on Shanghai.

Join Laser-View Technologies at Molding 2018

By Editor's Choice, News

Please join Laser-View Technologies February 27 – March 1, 2018 during Molding 2018 at the Hilton Long Beach in Long Beach, CA! Catch up on all the industrial non-contact laser measurement solutions Laser-View Technologies  has to offer:

  • Dimetix laser distance sensors distributed by DIMETIX USA
  • DIS Sensors, including the DARE!! award winning SIL2/PLd compliant QG series of inclination and acceleration sensors, distributed by DIS Sensors USA
  • Meet the Crane Sentry® family of overhead crane monitoring systems, manufactured and distributed by Laser-View Technologies, Inc.

Much, much, more…

Molding 2018 Molding 2018 is a unique event focusing on innovations in injection molding technology. Now in its 28th year, the Molding conference brings global leaders and innovators in injection molding together under one roof in the world’s premier technical conference on this technology.
  • Location: Hilton Long Beach in Long Beach, CA
  • Dates: February 27 – March 1, 2018

Visit the Molding 2018 website to learn more.

Injection Molding Facility Crane Collision Monitoring

By Crane positioning, Editor's Choice, Materials Handling, Sensors, Solutions

Everybody knows that laser distance sensors can be used to monitor position and potential collisions of overhead bridge cranes. But what happens when an object on the runway, such as a robotic arm that normally remains below the level of the bridge crane hook or load, suddenly changes elevation into the path of an oncoming crane? Almost certain downtime and costly repairs to the robot, right? Not to mention the potential safety issues such a scenario suggests. Such was the scenario faced at a plastic injection molding facility in Georgia, where Laser-View Technologies helped solve this very problem with the right combination of materials handling expertise, Dimetix laser distance sensors, a Crane Sentry® controller, and a master wireless communication gateway with multiple remote interfaces.

Challenge

It’s not difficult to imagine what could happen if an object on an overhead crane runway, such as a robotic arm that normally remains below the level of the bridge crane hook or load, suddenly changed elevation into the path of an oncoming crane. A plastic injection molding facility in Georgia faced this very scenario, and decided the best approach would be to prevent any potential collision from ever happening. The physical layout of the facility and distances separating four injection molding machine work centers, however, required the use of a wireless solution that had to be capable of preventing an overhead bridge crane from entering the work center zones while an automated cast removal robotic arm was elevated. Because the crane needed to have access to any particular work center zone to change out the molding machine die as necessary, the solution also needed to warn the machine work center when the crane bridge approached and entered the work center zone to prevent unintentional activation of the robotic arm.

Solution

Laser-View Technologies provided a  solution that included a Dimetix laser distance sensor, a Crane Sentry controller equipped with a master wireless gateway module to monitor, process and relay input signals from four remote interface modules, each equipped with a wireless radio, mounted at each machine work center. In this application, the Dimetix laser sensor was mounted near the Crane Sentry controller on the crane bridge and aimed at a flat target plate on the wall. The master wireless I/O module mounted on the Crane Sentry communicated with the remote interface modules, which relayed the digital output signal provided by the customer when the robot arm was raised, and received/relayed the Crane Sentry input signal when the crane approached any of the machine center zones.

Results

As a result, the customer was able to prevent the bridge crane from entering  the machine zone while the automated cast removal robotic arm was raised, and yet was able to safely permit overhead crane entry into machine zones as necessary when the robotic arm was lowered.

Key Application Notes:
  • Multiple communications options
  • Teach or manually enter set points
  • Simple installation, low maintenance
  • Six configurable relay outputs
  • Color touchscreen data entry & display
  • Wireless interface module

For more information on the Crane Sentry family of laser distance sensor-based overhead crane position and collision monitoring systems, or anything else regarding Dimetix laser distance sensors, please visit our Website at www.laser-view.com, call 610-497-8910, or email us at [email protected].

Download the full application brief here.

Company invests some cold, hard cash in Rochelle – SaukValley.com

By Automation, Editor's Choice, Materials Handling, News

ROCHELLE – Americold is expanding, adding an $80 million, 140-foot-tall freezer that will bring 70 new jobs to the city.

The company broke ground this week on its new facility, a frozen food warehouse and distribution center with an automated storage and retrieval system, marking its second addition since coming to this Ogle County town in 1995.

It will be attached to the warehouse at 1010 Americold Drive and create an additional 57,600 pallet positions for storage.

“It is a game-changer when a company integrates advanced technology into its operations. Rochelle is proud to be home to another one of Americold’s automatic storage and retrieval system distribution centers,” said Jason Anderson, director of the Greater Rochelle Economic Development Corp.

The project is scheduled to be complete by the end of next year, and the company’s footprint will total more than 33.5 million cubic feet of temperature-controlled warehousing and logistics space.

“Americold’s decision to expand in Rochelle is proof again that we are the Midwest hub for frozen food distribution; we appreciate their continued reinvestment in the city of Rochelle,” Mayor Chet Olson said in a news release.

Increasing the company’s storage capacity will allow them to take on more business in the Chicago area, Americold President and CEO Fred Boehler said.

“Working with some of our key partners, we identified the opportunity to update and expand our campus just an hour east of Chicagoland, and to offer both automated and conventional storage and distribution options,” Boehler said.

MORE INFO

Call 815-562-1047, go to americold.com or find the company on Facebook for more information about Americold, 915 S. Caron Road and 1010 Americold Drive, in Rochelle.

The Atlanta, Georgia, based business operates 165 temperature-controlled warehouses across the globe, serves more than 2500 customers and employs 11,000 associates.

At Toyota, The Automation Is Human-Powered

By Automation, Automotive Industry, Editor's Choice, Sensors, technology
While the rest of the auto industry increasingly uses robots in manufacturing, Toyota has taken a contrarian stance by accentuating human craftsmanship

[Photo: courtesy of Toyota]

On the assembly line in Toyota’s low-strung, sprawling Georgetown, Kentucky factory, worker ingenuity pops up in the least expected places. For instance, normally in auto plants installing a gas tank is a tedious, relatively complicated procedure. Because the tank is so heavy, a crane usually positions and holds it against the skeletal frame while employees tighten its straps and bolts from under the chassis, a strained and time-consuming maneuver that requires keeping arms up in the air for long periods of time.

To allay the obvious shortcomings in this process, a group of Toyota workers designed an ingenuous device–a multi-armed piece of industrial machinery that in a single action lifts the tank in the air, places it in its crevice and reaches underneath the vehicle’s skeletal body to permanently attach the tank to the chassis. The process is fast, seamless, and ergonomically safe.

Freed from securing the bolts, the workers (the designers of this new device) would seem to be superfluous. However, that’s not the case at all. Indeed, the same number of employees as before are still at that assembly station. But instead of turning bolts in cramped crannies, they are doing the types of less obviously essential human tasks that manufacturers tend to eliminate when automation is introduced; namely, painstaking tactile and visual inspections to check and double-check for flaws on the tank and its connections and for holes or weaknesses in the critical fuel line.

The central role that people play in this corner of the Georgetown plant is repeated in varying degrees throughout the factory and exemplifies the uniqueness of Toyota’s manufacturing philosophy, which while still cutting edge continues to curiously nod to the past. Even as the automaker unveils an updated version of its vaunted production system, called the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), the company has resisted the very modern allure of automation–a particularly contrarian stance to take in the car industry, which is estimated to be responsible for over half of commercial robot purchases in North America.

“Our automation ratio today is no higher than it was 15 years ago,” Wil James, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky, told me as we sat in his office above the 8.1-million-square-foot (170 football fields) factory. And that ratio was low to begin with: For at least the last 10 years, robots have been responsible for less than 8% of the work on Toyota’s global assembly lines. “Machines are good for repetitive things,” James continued, “but they can’t improve their own efficiency or the quality of their work. Only people can.” He added that Toyota has conducted internal studies comparing the time it took people and machines to assemble a car; over and over, human labor won.

The Robotic Mystique

Such thinking seems unorthodox but it’s not surprising given Toyota’s well-known manufacturing system, which was first popularized in The Machine That Changed the World, an unlikely best-seller in the early 1990s written by three MIT academics. Despite its dry subject, this book had a radical impact inside and outside of the business community–for the first time, unveiling the mysteries of Japanese industrial expertise and popularizing terms like lean production, continuous improvement, andon assembly lines, seven wastes or mudas and product flow. With the publication of The Machine That Changed the World, it became de rigueur for every large and small manufacturer to at least give lip service to emulating Toyota’s production strategy.

But as the decades past, you’d be forgiven if you thought that many of the balletic set of assembly line systems depicted in The Machine That Changed the World was anachronistic, especially the ones involving the contribution of human workers. Fundamentally, Toyota’s production principles were keyed to the notion that people are indispensable, the eyes, ears, and hands on the assembly line–identifying problems, recommending creative fixes, and offering new solutions for enhancing the product or process. Today, that idea seems quaint. In the industrial world now manufacturing prowess is measured more by robotic agility than human ingenuity. As an aspiration, lean is taking a back seat to lights-out–a manufacturing concept Elon Musk is championing for his Model 3 Tesla plant in which illumination will ultimately not be needed because the factory will be devoid of people . Even before we get there, auto companies like Kia–headquartered in Korea where the use of robots in manufacturing outpaces all other countries–are already claiming productivity improvements of nearly 200% from automation. Some plants have more than 1,000 robots–and less than a thousand people–on an assembly line.

Indeed, a nearly fetishistic appreciation of automation is ubiquitous these days. Dozens of articles, white papers, and books, written by respected thought leaders, executives, and consultants, depict an industrial future inevitably overrun by robots able to do the most sophisticated tasks at inhuman levels of efficiency. These are siren calls to most manufacturers whose growth plans are conditioned on cutting labor costs, which often make up as much as 25% of the value of their products. Some of the Pollyannaish views about the onslaught of robots foresee a period of unprecedented free time for individuals to cater to the whims of their imagination, turning us all into freelance artisans and entrepreneurs. Other, more sober forecasts worry about what people will do without the satisfaction of a job and the stability of a paycheck. Either way, a revolution awaits us, so goes the conventional wisdom. An oft-quoted Oxford University analysis predicts that over the next two decades, some 47% of American jobs will be lost to automation. In China and India, that figure is even higher: 77% and 69% respectively.

Links To The Past

But Toyota has forged a different path. The automaker, now jockeying with Volkswagen and Renault-Nissan for the top spot in worldwide sales, consistently generates industry best profit margins, often 8% or more. To maintain this performance, Toyota has eschewed seeking growth primarily through cost-cutting (read automation), but rather has focused on automobile improvements offered at aggressively competitive prices. Codified as the Toyota New Global Architecture, this strategy doesn’t primarily target labor to reduce production expenses but instead is weighted toward smarter use of materials; reengineering automobiles so their component parts are lighter and more compact and their weight distribution is maxed out for performance and fuel efficiency; more economical global sharing of engine and vehicle models (trimming back more than 100 different platforms to fewer than ten); and a renewed emphasis on elusive lean concepts, such as processes that allow assembly lines to produce a different car one after another with no downtime. In TNGA’s framework, robots are not the strategic centerpiece, but merely enablers and handmaidens, helping assemblers do their jobs better, stimulating employee innovation and when possible facilitating cost gains.

As if to punctuate how old-school this way of thinking is today, Toyota made an unusual executive appointment in 2015. Unexpectedly, the automaker named Mitsuru Kawai, a 52-year veteran of the firm (he was hired at 15), to head up global manufacturing, the highest position ever held by a former blue-collar worker. Kawai is one of the last remaining links at Toyota to Taiichi Ohno, the godfather of lean manufacturing and the Toyota production system. Ohno, who died in 1990, idealized the importance of seasoned and practiced individual workers to the success of the organization. Kawai recalled with some nostalgia how this attitude elevated employee self-regard and in turn the quality of Toyota’s assembly line. When he first started at the company, experienced factory employees were called gods because they were masters that could make anything by hand. Regrettably, he said, more recently Toyota had less appetite for “making use of human skills and wisdom.”

Kawai’s job now is to imbue TNGA with Ohno’s memory by bringing human craftsmanship back to the fore. Soft-spoken and unassuming, Kawai described the manufacturing philosophy he uses to achieve this as uncomplicated: “Humans should produce goods manually and make the process as simple as possible. Then when the process is thoroughly simplified, machines can take over. But rather than gigantic multi-function robots, we should use equipment that is adept at single simple purposes.”

A Series Of Elementary Innovation

Aspects of TNGA are being implemented in most Toyota factories around the world. But Toyota has invested in a $1.3 billion overhaul of Georgetown–its largest plant where 550,000 Camrys, Avalons, and Lexuses are produced each year–as TNGA’s pilot site before disseminating the new system globally. The imprints of Kawai and Ohno are already evident in large and small ways in the Kentucky facility. For instance, the outsized overhead conveyer belts that used to carry a steady stream of engines to the assembly line have been swapped out for moving pedestals that skate across the factory guided by electronic sensors in the floor. This new engine delivery system (which is, after all, merely a machine replacing a machine) accomplishes a series of manufacturing goals. By eliminating the complex web of conveyer belts, Toyota is able to downsize its plants considerably, essentially to one story from as many as three. That, in turn, results in substantial savings on construction, real estate, cooling, heating, and maintenance, some of the highest costs in managing a factory network.

In addition, the pedestals’ payloads are computer-directed, each engine matched directly with customer purchases. Which means that Toyota can theoretically make three SUVs for every sedan one hour and do the opposite the next, depending on market orders. Such flexible, one-by-one production is the elusive Holy Grail of the auto industry.

And equally significant, freed of the conveyer belts, the assembly line workspaces are relatively uncluttered, cleared of pulleys, tubes, and pipes. As a result, assemblers can spend their limited amount of time with the automobile–usually less than a minute–completing their tasks and checking for defects while not wasting seconds navigating inelegantly around it.

A more rudimentary innovation in Georgetown that dovetails perfectly with TNGA tenets is the floating chair ,or raku seat (raku roughly means easy in Japanese). This assembly aid glides along rails in and out of the vehicle and then front to back inside the car, giving installers unimpeded access to difficult-to-reach spots like the dashboard console without having to bend or squeeze into awkward positions. The Toyota employee that designed this device patterned it after the moving swivel chair in his bass fishing rig–and used a seat from his boat to beta test the concept.

Besides its ergonomic benefits, the raku seat prunes seconds off of the production process, which is a persistent goal of Toyota’s manufacturing systems. Repeated across the assembly line, trimming small slices of time adds to up to meaningful productivity benefits. “In our world, we see work in 55-second bursts,” said Kentucky Toyota manufacturing president James. “And we challenge our workers to chop a second or more off if they can. If we gain back 55 seconds throughout the factory, we can ultimately eliminate a job and move that worker to another slot where they can begin the innovation process over again. Humans are amazing at finding those stray seconds to remove.”

Among the more compelling experiments underway in Georgetown is a training exercise meant to infuse the TNGA idea that automation should solely grow organically out of human innovation. To this end, assemblers were given a karakuri assignment–a lean management drill that requires workers to build a Rube Goldberg-inspired contraption that operates under its own force to improve a workspace activity. One team is reengineering the flow rack, the ubiquitous stand next to each assembly station that holds the parts needed for the local task. Currently, as shelves are emptied, workers have to manually set them aside and then replace them with a full bin of parts. The “modernized” version will instead rely on a combination of springs, ropes, and weights to navigate this task after a button is pressed. When this decidedly low-tech device is perfected, Toyota plans to use the prototype as the blueprint for a robot to emulate the process.

Toyota Emerges From A Debacle

TNGA, which Toyota expects will reduce manufacturing expenditures by as much as 40%, emerged from a dark period in the early 2000s when the automaker overeagerly attempted to outpace General Motors and Volkswagen as the world’s No. 1 vehicle manufacturer. Toyota has admitted that by juicing production growth too rapidly at that time, quality, manufacturing controls and factory productivity were allowed to lag. So much so that in 2009 Toyota had its first loss in 59 years (in part due to the global financial depression) and during the next two years recalled more than 10 million vehicles after a spate of sudden acceleration accidents. In 2014, Toyota agreed to pay a record $1.2 billion penalty to end a criminal probe by the U.S. Justice Department into its alleged attempts to mislead the public and hide the true facts about the dangerous problems with its vehicles. Toyota’s CEO Akio Toyoda apologized publicly and abjectly for the company’s failures and said the automaker was “grasping for salvation.” An internal soul-searching followed, which in turn led to the new manufacturing system and ultimately to Kawai’s appointment to lead its implementation and a return to craftsmanship.

As part of the TNGA rollout, Kawai has demanded that factories establish manual workspaces for critical plant processes, in some cases eliminating automation where it had already been installed during the period that Toyota overtaxed its production capacity. Kawai’s goal is twofold. First, to ensure that Toyota’s workers have the expertise and skills to manufacture a car by hand even if they wouldn’t be called upon to fully do so again. Kawai believes that without this body of knowledge assemblers become myopic, focused solely on their small part of the operation and blinded to their responsibility to design improvements for the larger team effort that are required to consistently produce high-quality vehicles. Worse yet, in this narrow outlook, workers often mistakenly see robots as replacements for people rather than basic tools that can be used to enhance factory performance.

Kawai’s second aim in replacing automated factory zones with people is to revisit with a clear mind–removed from the anxiety of a surge in production volume–whether robots have actually improved efficiency in individual plant activities. Some of the results of this experiment are unexpected. For instance, in a Japanese Toyota factory where workers have taken over forging crankshafts out of metal from automated equipment, subsequent innovations have reduced material waste by 10% and shortened the crankshaft production line by 96%.

Is The Robot Threat A Fantasy?

Toyota’s aversion toward automation is noteworthy for the obvious reason that the automaker is arguably one of the most creative and successful manufacturing companies in history, and has never followed the herd but rather set the course. However, beyond that, also worth examining more closely is the question raised by Toyota’s choice of direction: Do robots kill jobs or create them? Toyota, of course, would argue that while some manufacturers eagerly embrace automation and more will in the future, on a larger scale (and ironically in the more innovative and pioneering factories) robots are best used to precipitate more human plant activity rather than reduce it.

Recent analyses of employment data support this somewhat contrarian point of view. In one bit of research, James Bessen, a Boston College law professor, found that although automation has been increasingly prevalent in all types of services and manufacturing industries since 1950, in that time only one of 270 occupations categorized by the Census Bureau was eliminated by technology; namely, the elevator operator. Other jobs were partially automated and in many cases, automation led to more jobs, often higher-skilled positions at companies that used technology to design and develop new products and new ways to reach customers.

For instance, ATMs have radically altered consumer-banking habits, yet the number of branch employees has grown since money machines were first installed during the late 1990s. “Why didn’t employment fall?” writes Bessen. “Because the ATM allowed banks to operate branch offices at lower cost; this prompted them to open many more branches (their demand was elastic), offsetting the erstwhile loss in teller jobs.” And simultaneously, banks morphed into financial services companies, introducing an array of customized products that tellers were deputized to sell, giving behind-the-cage clerks the same opportunities for upward job mobility as deskbound bankers used to have.

In addition, historically there is a direct correlation between productivity growth, which robots should naturally contribute to, and job creation not explained by population gains. In theory, companies able to manufacture products more quickly and efficiently will reinvest the money from higher sales in assets and innovation and, in turn, additional workers. Or they may lower prices, which drives more consumer spending, higher GDP, and an improved employment outlook. A trenchant study on this topic by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation illustrated the relationship between productivity and employment by examining economic data of the post World War II era. ITIF found that in the 1960s, when U.S. productivity grew 3.1% per year, unemployment averaged 4.9%. [JR1] A couple of decades later, annual productivity growth had fallen to just under 2% and unemployment rates averaged 7.3%. And in the 1990s and early 2000s in the wake of the internet boom, annual productivity growth was nearly 3% again; in turn, the unemployment rate declined. From 2008 to 2015, productivity gains had ticked downward once more to only 1.2%; concomitantly, the rate of jobs creation has been sluggish compared to the pre-recession period.

These productivity statistics lead to a few significant conclusions about automation today. For one thing, robots thus far do not make up a significant portion of manufacturing activities–responsible for only around 10% of the work in factories, according to some estimates–and companies that have embraced automation have yet to see significant gains from it since productivity growth continues to trend downward. Moreover, the effect that automation has had on employment has been muted. Another bit of data is worth mentioning in this regard: Workers are not leaving occupations as frequently as they did in past decades–the rate of occupational change in the 2000s is 45% lower than the 1940–1980 period and 33% lower than the 1990s, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Robert Atkinson, ITIF president, believes that robots will in fact have a substantial presence in global factories before too long, although he doesn’t view automation as a threat to human jobs. He asserts that the productivity slump reflects a slowdown in innovation recently. Technology waves lasting as long 50-years have traditionally transformed society and revitalized economies but IT has stalled out, at the bottom of the S curve, Atkinson argues. “In the 1990s we went from dialup to 3 megabit broadband, that was transformative,” Atkinson says. “But going from 10 megabit to 50 megabit is not. Same thing with how much chips progressed in capabilities in the 1990s, but no more.”

As Atkinson sees it, the somewhat labored abilities of artificial intelligence are holding back robotic skills. That position is shared by John Launchbury, director of DARPA’s Information Innovation Office, who says that AI is within reach but yet a distance away from the type of contextual adaption that true factory automation requires; in other words, AI systems still lack cognition skills to understand and manipulate underlying explanatory models and identify and analyze real-world objects. According to Launchbury, today’s second wave AI systems are capable of statistical learning; based on millions of bits of data, they can separate one voice from another or a cat from a dog, among many other more complex distinctions. A contextual adaption system, though, “could say if a specific animal it sees with little more than a cursory glance has ears, paws, or fur and how they differ from another animal in the most minute ways,” he says.

When that level of AI is available, Atkinson argues, the next technological wave–the robot era–will have arrived. And annual productivity could increase to as much as 3.5%. “Which will create hundreds of thousands of jobs for people working with and around robots,” he says.

That, anyway, is what Toyota is counting on–or, better yet, cutting its own curve to make sure it happens.

Tracking Space Debris in Earth’s Orbit With Centimeter Precision Using Efficient Laser Technology

By Aerospace, Editor's Choice, laser distance sensor, Sensors, technology
Fighting the perils of space debris: Fraunhofer IOF's fiber laser technology. Credit: Fraunhofer IOF Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-09-tracking-debris-earth-orbit-centimeter.html#jCp

Fighting the perils of space debris: Fraunhofer IOF’s fiber laser technology. Credit: Fraunhofer IOF Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-09-tracking-debris-earth-orbit-centimeter.html#jCp

Uncontrollable flying objects in orbit are a massive risk for modern space travel, and, due to our dependence on satellites today, it is also a risk to global economy. A research team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena, Germany, has now especially developed a fiber laser that reliably determines the position and direction of the space debris’ movement to mitigate these risks.

A short-pulse fiber laser for centimeter-accurate detection of space debris.

A short-pulse fiber laser suitable for LIDAR applications (light detection and ranging) for the centimeter-accurate detection of space debris. Credit: Fraunhofer IOF

Space debris is a massive problem in low Earth orbit space flight. Decommissioned or damaged satellites, fragments of space stations and other remnants of space missions pose a potential threat of collisions with active satellites and spacecraft every day. In addition to their destructive force, collisions also create additional risk creating thousands of new pieces of debris, which in turn could collide with other objects – a dangerous snowball effect.

Today, the global economy depends to a substantial degree on satellites and their functions – these applications are, for example, used in telecommunications, the transmission of TV signals, navigation, weather forecasting and climate research. The damage or destruction of such satellites through a collision with orbiting satellites or remains of rockets can cause immense and lasting damage. Therefore, the hazardous space debris needs to be reliably tracked and recorded before any salvaging or other counter-measures can be considered. Experts from Fraunhofer IOF in Jena have developed a laser system that is perfectly suited for this task.

Reliable recording of the position and movement of objects in the Earth’s orbit

“With our robust and efficient system we can reliably and accurately determine the objects’ exact position and direction of movement in orbit,” explains Dr. Thomas Schreiber from the fiber lasers group at Fraunhofer IOF. “Laser systems like ours must be exceptionally powerful in order to withstand the extreme conditions in space. In particular, the high physical strain on the carrier rocket during the launch, where the technology is subjected to very strong vibrations. “In the low earth orbit, the high level of exposure to radiation, the extreme temperature fluctuations and the low energy supply are just as great obstacles to overcome. This necessitated the new development by the Jena research team since common laser technologies are not able to cope with these challenges.

Moreover, it is also necessary to analyze space debris over comparatively long distances. For this purpose, the laser pulse is propagating through a glass fiber-based amplifier and sent on its kilometers long journey.

Measurements with ten thousands laser pulses per second

“Very short laser pulses, which last only a few billionths of a second, are shot at different positions in space to determine the speed, direction of motion and the rotational motion of the objects,” explains Dr. Dr. Oliver de Vries. “With our laser system it is possible to shoot up thousands of pulses per second. If an object is actually at one of the positions examined, part of the radiation is reflected back to a special scanner, which is directly integrated into the system. Even though the laser beam is very fast, it takes some time for the emitted light to get to the object and back again. This so-called ‘time of flight’ can then be converted into a distance and a real 3D coordinate accordingly.” The system’s sophisticated sensors, which collect the reflected light reflexes, can detect even billionths of the reflected light.

The principle – originally developed by the two researchers of Fraunhofer IOF for Jena-Optronik and the German Aerospace Centre (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, DLR) – has already been successfully tested during a space transporter’s docking maneuver at the International Space Station ISS. Previously, the laser system had been installed in a sensor of the Thuringian aerospace company Jena-Optronik GmbH and was launched in 2016 with the autonomous supply transporter ATV-5. Jena Optronik’s system also excels in energy efficiency: the fiber laser operates at a total power of less than 10 watts – that is significantly less than a commercial laptop, for instance.

Source: Physics.org. Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-09-tracking-debris-earth-orbit-centimeter.html