Satellites: small is beautiful
01 July 2019

Spacecraft follow the same tendency as our computers to become continuously smaller, but more connected. In his ERC grant “NetSat”, Klaus Schilling, from the Zentrum für Telematik in Würzburg, studies control strategies for small pico-satellites in formation, in order to achieve the best performance through their cooperation.

Cover image of Satellites: small is beautiful

Modern miniaturization techniques allow to build extremely small satellites. Prof. Schilling and his team use pico-satellites in the range of 1–3 kg to analyse control and operations procedures. These are able to self-configure to perform efficient measurements. Innovative approaches by cooperating, self-organizing networks of small satellites combine their measurements in new distributed data acquisition approaches.

In 2019, the researchers will investigate the control of a formation composed of four pico-satellites in-orbit, for the first time worldwide, in 3 dimensions. This requires coordinated control of all the units in parallel, to avoid collisions and provide optimum relative positions for observation. Based on previous research on mobile robotics on ground, technologies are now adapted to spacecraft. Here a combination of optimal control strategies to coordinate relative motion, as well as a robust flow of information in the network of satellites and ground stations, enable efficient teamwork in space.

Prof. Schilling’s work will open the door for future distributed Earth observation strategies, generating 3D-images of Earth’s surface and atmosphere. In 2018, he was one of the recipients of an ERC Synergy Grant aiming to improve climate predictions by characterizing the interior of clouds. The project uses computed tomography algorithms, initially developed for medical purposes, and now applied to fuse the observations from ten small satellites to reveal the cloud structure. Finally, distributed satellite systems are expected to have significant application potential in the field of telecommunication networks, in particular in the area of “internet of things”.


Klaus Schilling worked in the space industry on Earth observation and satellites (such as HUYGENS and ROSETTA), before being appointed Professor and Chair for Robotics and Telematics at the University of Würzburg (Germany). His team built the first German pico-satellite UWE-1. He is full member of the International Academy of Astronautics and was Consulting Professor at Stanford University.

Project information

Networked Pico-Satellite Distributed System Control
Klaus Schilling
Host institution:
Zentrum fuer Telematik e.V.
Call details
ERC-2012-ADG_20120216, PE8
ERC Funding
2 500 000 €