New Space and Tech

Benchmark Space Systems Announces First “Autopilot” for Satellite Maneuvers

By Craig Bamford
August 16, 2023
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Benchmark Space Systems Announces First “Autopilot” for Satellite Maneuvers
NASA rendering of a satellite propulsion system.
Image credit: NASA.

Burlington, Vermont-based Benchmark Space Systems made a pair of key announcements on August 9th. The first announcement was that after recently concluding a $33 million Series B round, the company is moving to a new and larger headquarters. Its second, related announcement was to unveil a new system named SmartAIM, which Benchmark is calling the “first ever autopilot for satellites.”

Benchmark is a propulsion systems provider that is, according to its website, focused on “creating cost effective propulsion solutions that allow small satellites to stay in orbit longer.” Its propulsion systems include the “Halcyon system” smallsat thrusters, which uses non-toxic “green” propellants; a “collision avoidance kit” that incorporates the Halcyon system, and the Xantus Metal Plasma Thruster, which is an electric propulsion system originally developed by Alameda Applied Sciences Corporation and acquired by Benchmark last year. They also offer hybrid Halcyon/Xantus packages. 

The Series B round was led by SP Catamount, with involvement by JH Capital, FreshTrack Capital, The Fund at Hula and others. Benchmark said that the money will “enable the company to intensify new innovations and accelerate its strategic transition from research and development to production,” to keep up with growing demand. 

Part of that transition is a move to a new HQ, “just around the corner from its previous home” in Vermont. Benchmark said that Its new 40,000-square-foot facility will allow it to “scale manufacturing and cut production times” with a focus on vertical integration. They said it “features full end-to-end delivery capability,” including everything from hot fire chambers to ISO 7 clean-room environments.

Benchmark CEO Ryan McDevitt said in the release that “with this move we will be able to leverage multiple dedicated assembly lines and develop a mature supply chain to consistently produce quality systems at scale.”

Autonomous satellite maneuvers

Chief among the company’s new innovations is SmartAIM, which is an onboard software control solution integrated into their propulsion systems that will give satellites much greater autonomy, allowing them to take abstract commands, such as to evade a hazard, and turn them into precise maneuvers. It relies on “multiple streams of real-time data, from onboard sensors and data relays.“

According to Benchmark’s datasheet, related capabilities extend “from improved collision avoidance to on-orbit servicing in congested earth orbit and cislunar domains.” While operators can always do manual maneuvers, they can also operate at various levels of abstraction—extending from simply sending a one-time command to a satellite to autonomously move into a specific orbit, to providing detailed and specific thrust vectors.

Chris Carella, Chief Commercial Officer at Benchmark, explained in the company’s announcement that “the Low Earth Orbit ecosystem is not sustainable without driver assist technologies like SmartAIM … [l]arge constellations aren’t technically or economically feasible in today’s busy orbits if they’re being controlled with traditional manual and multi-step procedures.” He warned that “the operational equivalent of falling asleep at the wheel could lead to a Kessler scenario that wipes out a trillion-dollar global infrastructure.” 

Benchmark also said that it would be working together with Kayhan Space on these capabilities, incorporating Kayhan’s Pathfinder safety service into SmartAIM. Pathfinder is a “space traffic management platform” that helps operators work together autonomously to avoid collisions and keep their satellites safe. Considering that SmartAIM adds autonomy to smallsats, it’s a logical move. 

Benchmark’s release said that “Pathfinder’s capabilities for optimized maneuver planning and autonomous space traffic coordination provide a unique and complementary offering when paired with Benchmark’s SmartAIM™ propulsion solution.”

Craig Bamford

Craig is a technology journalist with a strong focus on space-related startups, business, and pop culture. He started working in science & technology media in 2016, and began writing about the Canadian space sector in 2017 for SpaceQ. He is a graduate of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, where he specialized in international conflict analysis and conflict resolution. He lives in Toronto.