In our latest meet the team blog, Rob Heaton explains how he launched his career into space. For just over 2 years Rob has been working in the BAE Systems Digital Intelligence C5ISR (Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) team, supporting our ongoing space programmes. He’s contributing to a legacy spanning from the days of Apollo 11 right up to the recent European Space Agency’s JUICE launch.
As published in a research article from Start Us Insights, the space industry is utilising emerging technologies – including 5G, advanced satellite systems, 3D printing, big data, and quantum computing – to upgrade and scale operations in space. Many common services rely on space infrastructure, from weather forecasting, remote sensing and global positioning system (GPS) navigation to satellite television and long-distance communication.
Here’s Rob’s story.
‘’After completing my MEng in Mechatronics at the University of Manchester, where I focused on robotics and digital control systems, I found supporting full-stack software development for the Tracking, Telemetry and Command Processor (TTCP) to be different to what I’d expected. However, it has proven to be very exciting. From working in this area I have been able to challenge myself, grow and experience new facets of electronic engineering.
TTCP is a modem (similar to your home network router) but for space communications, providing an uplink to spacecraft to send commands and a downlink to receive sensor data, video link, and spacecraft telemetry. It can also take very precise measurements of radial velocity and range for spacecraft navigation, vital when billions of kilometres away from Earth. The TTCP is the second generation of TT&C, developed in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), which replaced the prior IFMS (intermediate-frequency modem system) units in ESA ground stations globally, continuing a history running for nearly 30 years.
Since joining this dynamic digital tech company as a graduate, I have been offered many great opportunities, some of which include; working on the front-end user interface used by ground station engineers; the back-end processing that accounts for phenomena such as Doppler shift; building relationships with ESA contacts to develop mission-critical solutions that impact the future of space exploration; and working with ground station customers such as Goonhilly Earth Station. I have also been responsible for hardware maintenance and the installation of equipment worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Reflecting on my time on TTCP, I am happy to say that I have found it to be thoroughly engaging, enjoyable and fulfilling, especially when I compare it to my time studying at university. It’s also been an honour to work alongside and learn from some of the brightest minds working at the forefront of space communications technology. I work on projects that matter and I am encouraged to explore creative solutions and develop my own skills in the process.
The people I work with are all very supportive, there’s a strong graduate community and we all try to encourage one another. There is a real focus on personal development and career aspirations, meaning I can access additional training where required, work on new projects that pique my interest, or attend courses on topics I want to learn more about. I also get to perform some outreach work and inspire a new generation of engineers by talking about the fascinating work we do in space. There is also plenty of support for pursuing chartership, and I have regular catch-ups with my career manager to ensure I am on track to achieving my personal goals.
As part of my role in the business, I also share half of my time with the Azalea programme: our ambitious in-house satellite cluster that combines RF sensing with on-board machine-learning capabilities.
Launching our own satellites will be an exciting first, heralding great prospects for innovation and exposure to new work. I have spent my time thus far writing firmware in VHDL, working at the low-level to drive the satellite cluster communications bit-by-bit, register-by-register. This use of Software Defined Radios (SDRs, a speciality of our Wireless Products Team) means the cluster can be configurable to customer needs, and ensures security and disaster response can be tailored to the individual situation. The Azalea cluster will form a marked step change in UK sovereign space capability, providing real-time intelligence of key areas and security of key assets from low earth orbit.
Being a much wider project than TTCP, I get to work in a more involved development environment and supply time-critical deliveries to other teams within the company. This involves a lot of collaborative working and grants me the chance to meet other engineers in their respective fields to understand the work they are doing and how this also contributes to the success of Azalea. It’s a real privilege to work with and have access to a wealth of knowledge and expertise from across other areas of the wider BAE Systems business. The team I work alongside has decades of firmware experience, giving me an excellent opportunity to learn best practices and consider the impact of the code I write, such as with power efficiency (given that the satellite will run off a solar-charged battery). Spending enough time with such subject matter experts (SMEs) lays the groundwork to become an SME myself in the future and they routinely encourage me to push the boundaries of what I believe I am capable of achieving. However, should the gravity of a task ever feel overwhelming, I know I have a wealth of supportive experts to call upon to guide me and shape me into the best engineer I can be.
Throughout my working days I am kept occupied with a variety of workload, whether it is working at the high-level writing Java code for a user interface or keeping timing between logic gates accurate to within 5 billionths of a second at the low level.
There is no place I have ever worked quite like BAE Systems Digital Intelligence. I’m part of a fun team with regular social activities being planned outside of work fostering a familial culture, which really does make BAE Systems Digital Intelligence an enjoyable place to work.
The work I get to do has a meaningful impact on the world and I am afforded a great deal of responsibility, with each day presenting new challenges that excite and provide a feeling of accomplishment as they are overcome’’.
Azalea™ is a cluster-based satellite system that will use a range of sensors to collect co-sensed data, which will be analysed by machine learning algorithms using on-board edge processors to deliver derived insight and intelligence securely, anywhere in the world while still in orbit. It will also boost the UK’s ability to understand the threats and hazards in, from and through space. Azalea™ is scheduled to launch in 2025.
If you’d like to be a part of our mission to innovate in space for advantage on earth, working in a team that helps to deliver our capabilities just like Rob, visit our Careers in Space page to find out more.