Weekend special: Irish software in space

This week Lero, the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre, announced they have signed a contract worth €300K with the European Space Agency (ESA). Lero employs 115 people at present and is funded mainly by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). I spoke to Lero Director Prof. Mike Hinchey yesterday about Lero and the beginning of its exciting voyage into space software engineering.

Lero’s headquarters are in the University of Limerick (UL) but it has researchers in University of Galway, DCU, UCD, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and Dundalk IT. They work with many industry partners which Hinchey says “keeps projects relevant and beneficial to Ireland”. Lero is involved in many European and International projects. In the past year, two additional European projects have already started. These projects enable Lero to collaborate with a large number of universities and companies across Europe.

Space research is not new to Hinchey, who is a Limerick native, as he was Director of NASA’s Software Engineering Lab for 6 years. He still works on projects with NASA and the US Army on a presidential appointment. His current job title in NASA is as an aptly named ‘Expert’.  Hinchey’s understanding of the ESA and its terminology definitely helped Lero win the new contract.

Software engineering is a vital component of many industries including space travel and research. Hinchey told me that Lero is working in the research area of Evolving Critical Systems. Software needs to be able to evolve as when it is initally developed engineers do not know how it will need to adapt for future use. Critical systems are the types of systems that cause serious problems if they fail such as injury, loss of life, or significant loss of money. An example of a critical system that needs to be adaptable is a medical device inside the body. Patients would not be happy if an operation was required every time the software needed to be updated!

I was fascinated by an area of research that Lero is involved in. Hinchey explained how “space agencies needed software that changed and adapted itself as [people were] too far away to deal with it”. This is because the speed of light is the maximum speed messages can be sent through space. For instance, it would take minutes to reach a space craft such as a Mars rover. This is too long when trying to avert potential disasters. Self-management of software known as autonomic computing is needed to combat this problem. One of the 3 sub-projects in the ESA contract involves this research. Dr. Emil Vassev is leading a team in the UL to develop an approach to enable better implementation and testing of these self-managing systems.

Dr. Andrew Butterfield is leading a team in TCD on the second ESA sub-project. His team is working on isolating software components from each other. This is important in space research as multiple components are run on the same spacecraft. It prevents failure of one component damaging the function of the remaining components. This methodology is not far removed from our everyday lives. For instance, if one program on your computer crashed, you would not want the entire computer to stop working.

The final ESA sub-project is being led by Dr. Goetz Botterweck based in UL. This team will be creating adaptable software that can be used in multiple space missions. The reuse of software will reduce the time taken to complete projects and increase their quality.

Hinchey commented that “the awarding of the contract is a further sign of the impact that Lero has made in software engineering research on a global scale”. Ireland is being put on the map in this sector by this innovative research centre. The amount of collaboration between Lero and both industry and universities across Europe is a demonstration of its strength. I was delighted to talk to Prof. Hinchey and learn about this brilliant research happening around Ireland. Long may it continue… to infinity and beyond!

Photos: European Space Agency

One thought on “Weekend special: Irish software in space

  1. Tá Éire ar an mapa le fada maidir le bogearraí sa Spás! Chaith mé féin seacht mbliana ag obair le comhlucht Éireannach, CAPTEC, ar bogearraí do ESA.

    Fch: http://www.captec.ie

    Táim rud beag amhrasach faoi chuid den taighde seo; go hiondúil ní na bogearraí an deacracht, ach an anailís lochtach ag an tús. Níl aon philéir airgid ann!

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