NTU Researchers Develop Radiation-Protection for Chips in Satellites and Autonomous Vehicles

Researchers at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore (NTU Singapore), have developed a “smart chip” that is capable of protecting satellites from radiation damages and could enable future satellites to carry more sophisticated equipment and yet be less costly to build. Built by a team led by Professor Joseph Chang from the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, the NTU-developed smart chip can detect incoming heavy-ion radiation with the potential to cause serious damage to electronics.

When the effects of radiation (known as a Single Event Latchup) are detected, the smart chip shuts down other electronics in the satellite safely and turns them back on once the danger has passed. The chip itself is hardened and protected against heavy-ion radiation and can stay ‘awake’ throughout the event. Known as the Latchup Detection and Protection (LDAP) chip, it is now commercialized by Zero-Error Systems (ZES), a start-up incubated by NTUitive, NTU’s innovation and enterprise company. The technology for the LDAP has recently been awarded two patents and has been verified under heavy-ion tests in a cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator that generates radiation particles.

The chip has been installed as part of the radiation-protection circuitry in three pico-satellites built by the Kyushu Institute of Technology, Japan, for Japan, Paraguay and the Philippines, and is expected to be first launched into space in 2021.  

Prof Chang explained that their new method of protecting satellites from radiation damage is unlike conventional methods, which use radiation-hardened space-grade electronics for each component of a satellite. This is costly, makes the satellite heavier and reduces choice to an older generation of ‘tried and tested’ components. “By using our LDAP chip, satellite manufacturers are now able to employ the latest consumer-grade electronics, such as those used in mobile phones, to build satellites,” said Prof Chang, who is a Founder and Technical Advisor at ZES.

ZES Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder Dr Shu Wei, said: “Consumer-grade electronics are lighter, more compact, cost only a fraction of the price, and are significantly more sophisticated than radiation-hardened components.”

“Pairing ZES technology together with advanced consumer-grade electronics will help to make it more cost-effective to launch satellites and constellations of satellites into space,” said Dr Shu, who did both his Bachelor of Engineering and his PhD at NTU, after which he worked as a Research Scientist at the university for a decade before joining ZES.

Dr Alex Lin, Interim CEO of NTUitive, said: “We are heartened to be a part of ZES’ journey in building this critical component for future space-faring instruments and vessels. What ZES did will contribute significantly to our ability to explore space – the next frontier.”

ZES Receives S$2.5 Million Boost to Scale Up

Zero-Error Systems (ZES) has also successfully raised S$2.5 million in seed funding, comprising investments from Airbus Ventures, SEEDS Capital, Silicon Solution Ventures, NTU’s Strategic Research Innovation Fund, private investors and ZES founders. Dr Tang Pen San, Co-Founder and Managing Director of ZES said the new funding will enable the start-up to quickly scale up its operations and to work with international customers to deploy their portfolio of products into space and other applications, including self-driving vehicles with high levels of autonomy.

“Being able to use consumer-grade electronics is a game-changer for the New Space industry,” Dr Tang said. “Besides reducing the cost substantially, state-of-the-art consumer-grade devices like AI chips and high-performance Field Programmable Gate Arrays – an integrated circuit that can be reprogrammed for different applications after manufacturing – will also enhance the functionalities and performances of these new satellites.”

Upcoming ZES-NTU Satellite Innovations

In ZES’s product line-up, there are two new innovations from NTU which are under development.

The first innovation is a radiation-hardened power management integrated circuit for small satellite components that is compact, reliable, and more efficient than conventional point-of-load modules. This would allow electronic components to operate optimally without interruption to the power supply from heavy-ion radiation.

The second product is a unique radiation-hardened ‘building block’ for silicon chip makers, which would eliminate almost all errors in electronic circuits caused by random heavy-ions. Known as the rad-hard standard cell library, this could be valuable in fully autonomous vehicles where safety-critical functions cannot be compromised by soft errors and where semiconductor reliability is of utmost importance.

More than 50 per cent of soft errors occur due to stored memory values in electronics being altered by high-energy particles from cosmic rays, which break the silicon nuclei in electronics and thus leads to computing errors. Such soft errors have been known to cause internet server outages, network router resets and could cause unpredictable quirks in vehicles equipped with modern-day electronics. Current mission-critical systems such as aircraft electronics have triple or quadruple redundancy to reduce and mitigate the effects of soft errors, but that is not feasible in autonomous vehicles with constraints on space, energy consumption and cost.

With technology development spearheaded by Dr Shu and Co-Founders, Dr Juanda and Dr Chong Kwen Siong, ZES is now scaling up their operations and is working with partners to design technologies for the “New Space” industry. The NTU technology to build the new radiation-hardened power management integrated circuit is also applicable to the personal mobility device market where reducing the size and improving the reliability of electronic circuits is important.