New Zealand-DLR Joint Research Programme

April 13th, 2021

New Zealand-DLR Joint Research Programme


In 2018 MBIE and DLR signed a Letter of Intent to enable joint research collaboration. MBIE invited proposals for feasibility studies under “Catalyst: Strategic for feasibility studies with the German Aerospace Center (DLR)” in the areas of propulsion, space communications and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) technologies.

MBIE has announced the successful proposals, and Kea Aerospace is pleased to be involved with feasibility studies for two projects. The first project listed is being managed by Kea Aerospace and is focused on developing a sensor platform that can fly in the stratosphere over the Antarctic. Our two New Zealand project partners are from Gateway Antarctica / University of Canterbury and the University of Auckland. The second project is managed by Moller Pollard Consulting and investigates how orbital and suborbital platforms can use SAR.


An Eye In The Southern Sky – Sensor Design For High Altitude Pseudo Satellites

The Antarctic is a fundamental part of the global climate system. There is mounting concern that its ice sheets will significantly contribute to increased sea level rise and open questions remain about changes to its sea ice cover with global ramifications. Satellite technologies have allowed great advancements in our knowledge of these processes. Although they can provide near-global coverage, the amount and the quality of data that can be collected in a given area is limited by their satellite orbits.

High Altitude Pseudo Satellites (HAPS) are solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles that operate for weeks at altitudes around 20,000m. HAPS in the form of fixed-wing aircraft are operating with high flexibility and are not constrained by orbits. Operating in a sweet spot for aerial imaging and remote sensing they can play a pivotal role in filling these knowledge gaps. In addition, the platform will be a unique tool for other applications in this remote region of the planet. The Southern Ocean and Ross Dependency fall heavily within Aotearoa/New Zealand’s sphere of influence yet the ability to carry out important tasks in the region remain restricted given its isolation. The Ross Sea is one of the last untouched marine habitats on earth and recent legislation has protected it, yet existing technology does not permit consistent monitoring of this large region for management purposes. The area also suffers from heavily restricted search and rescue capability which a HAPS platform could improve. The HAPS platform, if desired, could also revolutionise observational ability within New Zealand itself with applications across multiple sectors including, geoscience, agriculture, forestry and urban planning.


Advanced Object Detectability In A Water Clutter Environment Using In SAR, Moller Pollard Consulting

Maritime domain awareness (MDA) has relied on spaceborne remote sensing for many decades.  Amongst these, SAR is capable of high-resolution mapping which can be valuable for characterising dynamic regions and detection of “features” of interest: e.g. the presence of vessels, wakes, pollutant spills, coastal dynamics, search and rescue, marine-debris, sea-ice, and fresh-water outflow.  However, detection, characterization, and ideally classification and tracking of objects or features in the complex maritime environment can be challenging and fundamental limitations present with respect to resolution, coverage and measurement sensitivity.

This initial effort will investigate new SAR concepts aimed at advancing detection and characterization of obscured, or physically small features in a large water expanse.  We will assess electromagnetic scattering and correlation properties to aid in an oceanic and inland water for SAR sensor/mission design.  In particular, we will look at the possibilities of using mm-wave frequencies which may enable enhanced object/clutter contrast with relatively small (single platform) architectures.

The DLR’s Microwave and Radar Institute (IHR) are world leaders in end-to-end SAR (as demonstrated by SRTM and TanDEM-X), and have an active development programme in mm-wave SAR (airborne Ka-band sensor).  IHR is to propose a  frequency-scanned Ka-band SAR to realize wide-swath coverage without compromising resolution and sensitivity.  Such an approach could be transformative for SAR MDA.  The mission concepts considered will be premised upon this capability.

The foundational study will result in strawman mission design(s) for orbital (e.g., Rocket Lab’s Photon small satellite) and suborbital (e.g. Kea Aerospace’s High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS)) platforms.  A feasibility assessment will survey industry capabilities and identify technology hurdles. The result will be recommendations for key technology and/or demonstrations to be achieved in the next phase including engaging with partners with a primary focus across New Zealand and German industry.