PhD Student Hannah’s experience of her NPIF internship at Orbital Micro Systems

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My name is Hannah and I’m a 3rd year PhD student in the School of GeoSciences. My main supervisor is Kathy Whaler and I am part funded by the British Geological Survey to work on geomagnetism and regional liquid iron movement on the surface of the outer core. I was interested in doing an internship to improve my industry experience and NPIF funding meant I was lucky to have the monetary backing to facilitate 6 months of placement at no cost to the company.  Initially I had been contacting a different company but became aware of this opportunity for an internship via the PGR team. PGR advertise internship opportunities, for research students, facilitated by CASE sponsorship funding and Stuart Simmons, Business Development Executive for the School of GeoSciences. I predominantly chose to apply for this internship as my PhD project uses magnetic satellite data and I wanted further experience with processing the raw satellite data. Spatial algorithm development is an element of my PhD and my skills (particularly coding skills) were needed by the company.

I am funded by the National Productivity and Industry Funding through NERC as part of an E3 DTP PhD programme and, as such, was required to complete a six month industry placement. Orbital Micro Systems (OMS) interviewed me at the end of January 2019 and kindly hosted me at their office space, at the Bayes Centre within the University of Edinburgh, between May and December 2019. This has been an enlightening and rewarding experience, giving me an insight into the entirety of the space industry in Scotland.
The range of tasks I’ve had while assisting at OMS has been varied.

OMS produces miniaturised passive microwave radiometers (MWRs), allowing for the installation of the sensor into a cubesat payload and the launch of a higher temporal and spatial resolution sensor as part of a constellation for a lower cost. MWRs use scattered microwave frequencies at set channels to gain a 3D image of storms by interpreting humidity, temperature and precipitation at different layers in the atmosphere. The use of 42 smaller cheaper satellites in a constellation would generate 15 minute revisits over storm structures, allowing for better input data into weather forecasting models. No commercial MWR data is currently available but it is one of the most important factors in the improvement of weather forecasting.

The project I applied for in January was looking at algorithm development for improving the spatial resolution of microwave radiometer data when satellite paths cross. However, OMS took on two interns at the same time and is a start-up currently mid-relocation from Colorado to Edinburgh. This meant that there was more important tasks by the time I joined in May and I was swiftly reassigned to different work. By the beginning of June, I was looking at the data output from MWRs in an attempt to design a product for the insurance industry focused around assessing crop damage from hail. While my background is with magnetic satellite data, I valued the experience to learn how different measurements from satellites can be used to understand our Earth. This work consisted of summarising how research groups and competitors had used MWR and other Earth Observation (EO) datasets to make scientific interpretations.

From these reports, I then summarised how these interpretations could be developed into commercial personalised level 3 products. These were pitched to the CEO and external organisations to gather understanding on the types of product that would be most relevant to the market. This required market awareness, understanding of the science, creatively working with resources available and writing short summaries and presentations ready to be pitched. My understanding of cubesat and EO technology also greatly increased.

Meanwhile, between July and September I assisted with the submission of two proposals to the European Space Agency (ESA). As OMS is a start-up, it has some dependence on government and international funding to provide proof of concept and enable next cubesat launch. Industry proposals require a thorough set of documentation requiring clear explanations of the scientific purpose, marketing infographics, financial plans, technology readiness, project management and benefits to company and wider society. This was an involved process, which allowed OMS to delegate some of the sections to me. My supervisor at OMS was sometimes too busy to attend meetings, meaning that I occasionally was tasking the required tasks to other employees and being the representative of the company. While this was not planned to be an initial part of my internship, it was an interesting experience equipping me with many skills that could be used in reports or proposal writing, outreach, project management and required me to condense my understanding of EO technologies into an easy to understand manner.

Alongside these tasks I enjoyed some unusual benefits from working in an interesting and relatively new sector in Scotland. These included:

  • – Watching live as the first OMS cubesat was launched from the International Space Station
  • – Write presentations for the Government of Kerala when OMS aimed to set up a Centre of Excellence in India
  • – Completed website updates and improved general design
  • – Worked on social media outreach
  • – Attended Scottish Space sector events and meetings as a representative of OMS, improving my knowledge of the industry and providing input across multiple projects

– Assisted the development of the University of Edinburgh Space Policy to be adopted in 2020

– Promoted the involvement of further geophysicists to engage with the Space sector by speaking about my experiences at the SEG virtual student conference

– Attended the UK Space Conference 2019 in Cardiff, Wales. I attended talks from industry and academics, was responsible for talking to data suppliers in a sales role, represented the company and formed contacts with other members of the space sector

– Helped organise an event for the US Consulate of Scotland for the launch of the ICED platform

In October we received feedback from the InCubed ESA proposal and were required to provide further clarifications. These clarifications required an extensive restructuring of certain sections including more in depth finances, clearer motivation of the project and further detail in the long-term OMS activities. It took a month to clarify and complete the desired changes and resubmit the proposal. I really enjoyed the chance to speak to ESA representatives over skype and gain an understanding for the exact subject matter they were looking for.

For my final project, I have been working on developing a python software pipeline from the SEDAS API source to download 1C satellite data from ESA sources. This pipeline is an essential part of creating an online platform providing analysis-ready data to users in as short a time as possible. This has required an understanding of the catalogues used to store the details, improved my python skills and exposed me to how companies manage multiple codes for a project.

I would like to thank NERC, BGS and the University of Edinburgh for financially supporting me to have such an interesting experience. Also, I want to thank Orbital Micro Systems for kindly agreeing to host and support me. My special thanks goes to Greg Porter for being my direct supervisor and friend. I have truly appreciated all the opportunities the internship has given me and wait expectedly to see the future of the Scottish Space Sector.

The OMS opportunity has been integral in my future career ambitions. I do not know exactly what path my career will take but it will have been enhanced by this opportunity. If I was to continue in academia, the experience in grant writing, policy development and project management will be extremely beneficial. Meanwhile, I have had a varied range of tasks and met a wide spectra of people in the Scottish Space industry. I hope to maintain my contacts within the industry and would definitely encourage students to consider working in the Scottish Space Sector. The Space industry is currently experiencing rapid growth in the UK and are searching for a skilled workforce with many qualities that GeoSciences can provide. Further information about joining this industry can be found at SpaceCareers.uk or spaceuniversitiesnetwork.ac.uk and the Geophysics Society will be running an event in early 2020.

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