Three new SA inventions ready for takeoff

The DTI’s Aerospace Industry Support Initiative (AISI) proved its importance to the South African aerospace industry recently, with the emergence of three highly innovative local aerospace technologies with great promise for successful commercialisation.

Managed and hosted by the CSIR, the AISI has an ambitious mandate to position the country as a global leader in niche areas of industry.

The technology-based SMMEs in question include a company that is the first in South Africa to be able to provide radiation screening and mitigation services for satellite components; a company that employs a unique stellar gyroscope to function as a reliable attitude control system for nano-satellites; and a company that has developed a micro gas turbine engine that has the potential to be used in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

Satellite component testing

Radiation effects on satellite electronic components have proven to be a major problem that affects the longevity of satellites in the space environment. The electronic components are required to undergo radiation screening before final installation on satellites. Previously, no facility in South Africa was able to perform this function and private and local satellite manufacturers had to have the satellite components screened by an international organisation.

Heliocentric Technologies ZA is the first domestic company to be able to provide radiation screening and mitigation services for satellite components. Their robust, reliable screening instruments and processes, which accurately simulate prolonged exposure to radiation, was developed over 18 months and utilises the facilities at iThemba LABS in Cape Town. With development now completed, the company has started to market its services.

The company maintains a range of common components in stock, for fast delivery to customers, tested for both TID (total ionising dose) and SEE (single event effects). Components include FPGAs, microcontrollers and microprocessors, data storage and memory, and power FETs. With the ability to provide high-energy protons up to 200 MeV for SEE testing, the test facility is able to perform batch testing of components, board-level testing and satellite-level testing of nano-satellites only.

Gyro for orbit control

Satellites use different systems for orbit and attitude control. These control systems ensure the intended orbit of the satellite is followed and calculate the necessary adjustments, should they drift out of orbit. Some of these control systems make use of the sun or other light sources to measure the position of the sun or light sources relative to the satellite’s position. Depending on this position, the satellite makes the necessary adjustments to retain its original orbit. Other types of attitude control systems have their own drawbacks and are often very complex and expensive, especially when being considered for use in nano-satellites.

NewSpace Systems has developed a novel attitude control system for low-cost, small and nano-satellites. The stellar gyroscope is an innovative solution to solve the problem of drift in traditional gyroscopes. The importance of this solution for space avionics is that it solves the problem of accurate attitude knowledge during the period the spacecraft is in eclipse and can no longer orientate itself relative to the sun. It is a key technology for achieving higher performance in smaller spacecraft as it achieves fine pointing accuracy at lower cost, using less spacecraft resources (mass, power, volume) and with high reliability through its robustness to ageing effects such as radiation damage.

NewSpace Systems will design, develop, manufacture, test and qualify a stellar gyro, which will be marketed as an attitude control sensor.

Gas turbines to power UAVs

The lack of a propulsion systems capability in South Africa has been identified as a deficiency in the aerospace industry. The clear market and strategic need for the local industry to develop a propulsion sector, and the past investment in gas turbine technology, present an ideal opportunity to develop a niche sector through support for a single product with potential to expand into a multitude of markets.

In an effort to reignite the local micro gas turbine propulsion market, Cape Aerospace Technologies (CAT) has developed the CAT 200 KS gas turbine engine. The first two phases of the project – which included preliminary design, development, manufacturing and testing – have been successfully completed.

CAT has subsequently moved to phase three of the project, which involves further upgrades to the gas turbine and commercialisation. It has made great technical achievements by getting the first new gas turbine prototype running in South Africa since the late 1980s.

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