Optimality Principles in Spacecraft Neural Guidance and Control

Dario Izzo, Emmanuel Blazquez, Robin Ferede, Sebastien Origer, Christophe de Wagter, Guido C. H. E. de Croon

Spacecraft and drones aimed at exploring our solar system are designed to operate in conditions where the smart use of onboard resources is vital to the success or failure of the mission. Sensorimotor actions are thus often derived from high-level, quantifiable, optimality principles assigned to each task, utilizing consolidated tools in optimal control theory. The planned actions are derived on the ground and transferred onboard where controllers have the task of tracking the uploaded guidance profile. Here we argue that end-to-end neural guidance and control architectures (here called G&CNets) allow transferring onboard the burden of acting upon these optimality principles. In this way, the sensor information is transformed in real time into optimal plans thus increasing the mission autonomy and robustness. We discuss the main results obtained in training such neural architectures in simulation for interplanetary transfers, landings and close proximity operations, highlighting the successful learning of optimality principles by the neural model. We then suggest drone racing as an ideal gym environment to test these architectures on real robotic platforms, thus increasing confidence in their utilization on future space exploration missions. Drone racing shares with spacecraft missions both limited onboard computational capabilities and similar control structures induced from the optimality principle sought, but it also entails different levels of uncertainties and unmodelled effects. Furthermore, the success of G&CNets on extremely resource-restricted drones illustrates their potential to bring real-time optimal control within reach of a wider variety of robotic systems, both in space and on Earth.

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