Congratulations to the EOS Space Systems' Alex Pollard, winner of the Engineer of the Year at the inaugural Space Connect, Australian Space Industry Awards held on 19 November 2020.
Alex Pollard, Software Group Leader for EOS Space Systems, was commended on his expertise in Interdisciplinary Systems Engineering, the practice of integrating complex systems across engineering fields such as thermodynamics, materials science, mechanical design, and control systems such as electronics and software.
EOS operates two 24/7 Space Domain Awareness sites in Australia, one at Mt Stromlo in the ACT and the other at Learmonth in northwest Western Australia. Underpinning each is an Observatory Control System (OCS), a powerful and flexible software framework that links telescopes, instruments, domes and lasers, enabling remote and fully autonomous observatory operation. It fuses data from multiple networked sites in real-time for all missions; scientific, military or commercial.
As Software Group Leader, Alex is responsible for ensuring this system operates continually, remotely and with minimal supervision, while enhancing it with new and improved capabilities such as better cameras and more efficient algorithms.
“I manage a team of six software engineers. Leading is about listening, laying the groundwork for productive contributions from the team by giving them the tools and starting platform they need and ensuring they are working on the right problem, so as not to waste their efforts, as much as is possible in a fast-moving field. I am always looking for better ways to do things, such as finding synergies – opportunities to develop economical and elegant technologies that can be adapted to multiple situations so that we don’t have to ‘reinvent the wheel’.
Software is at the core of all EOS products, it’s the “glue” which connects disparate components together. EOS’ military qualified real-time software contains over a million lines of sophisticated code”, Alex explained.
Keeping pace with ever-improving technology is a key challenge, as the price of available equipment, such as cameras, falls, while its capability rises.
Alex explains the importance of remaining agile to be able to adapt new equipment into EOS’ existing systems, “There is always a risk in settling on a choice of technology, committing resources to it, only to find out a few months later there is something much better available.
To reduce the cost of wasting resources on redundant technology we have focused effort on writing software that can be quickly adapted. So for example, our camera server applications, which control and get images from astronomical cameras, showing where satellites are in space, are very similar to each other no matter what brand or model of camera each talks to. A thin software layer is used to adapt each camera to our existing software infrastructure, new capabilities can be developed within days.”
Another engineering challenge which requires ongoing effort is the maintenance of EOS’ collaboration with US Strategic Command’s Laser Clearing House. To avoid firing our lasers at sensitive satellites EOS seeks permission in advance for where and when laser beam directors can be pointed. The de-confliction software Alex devised and deployed in conformance with US Government is a critical component of this.
Alex has been a member of Engineers Australia (EA) for over 17 years, he is also a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Alex regularly co-authors published papers and is an integral member of the space events team where he demonstrates EOS’ automated target scheduling software using a model telescope (a representation of EOS’ 1m and 1.8m aperture telescope) to simulate the tracking of real space objects selected in real-time.
What does the future look like for engineers in the space industry? Alex believes the first thing the industry needs to do is to acknowledge the large and growing space traffic management problem.
“The community at large doesn’t grasp how profound a change it is going to be having tens of thousands of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites available to transform all our lives but those satellites will pose risks to each other.
EOS is well placed to lead Australia’s contribution to keeping space usable in all regimes, Low-Earth Orbit, Medium-Earth Orbit, Geostationary Orbit and beyond.
By knowing where satellites are with precision we can determine when satellite operators need to adjust an orbit to avoid collision and at the very least, help mitigate and insure against risk, and enforce legal accountability for irresponsible operators” he said.
Space technology, he continued, “is all about engineering because the solutions are not cheap or easy.
Case in point: when you launch a satellite you only get one shot at it, you can’t call out a technician to fix a satellite after it is launched!
There aren’t many other fields where the requirements are so exacting. I’m excited to be making my contribution toward the development of a strong Australian space economy.”