Continuing our series of interviews featuring some of the people from around the world working on the SKA, we talked to system engineer Li Shanqing from China.
Shanqing, you have just finished a one year secondment at the SKA Headquarters at Jodrell Bank in the UK. How was your experience here? What will you particularly remember from your stay?
It’s been a wonderful experience for me to work at the SKA Headquarters together with such fantastic colleagues from so many different countries in what is a truly international environment.
I’ll particularly remember having the unique opportunity to visit the 76m Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank up close, which was a most impressive experience. The telescope was built 60 years ago and still works today as the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world. It’s an incredible thing that we can explore the universe by controlling such a big telescope.
It was my first time living abroad, and that was a great opportunity to experience different cultures. I found people to be very friendly and easy to communicate with. I remember when I took the train the first time, I missed the stop because I just didn’t know I had to press a button to open the door! [laugh] The other passengers very kindly told me how to and helped me to get me where I needed to go.
Tell us a bit more about your background. Where do you work in China and what do you normally do?
I first heard about the SKA during a presentation at the Chinese Ministry of Science & Technology, which sparked my interest. Two years later, I heard about this secondment opportunity and was very excited to apply.
I work at the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China (ISTIC). My work focuses on the modelling and analysis of data used to discover significant development trends in specific domains. I also do research on technology readiness assessment as part of a project called National Science and Technology Achievement Database (NSTAD) funded by the Chinese Ministry of Science & Technology, which aims to provide information on technology readiness levels and support technology transfer.
And you applied this here at the SKA?
Yes, during my one-year secondment here, I worked in the Mission Assurance group, focusing on technology readiness assessment. The SKA is a complex engineering project that will rely on many different technologies, some of which are common and some of which are still emerging, and so it is important to assess how mature and reliable these technologies are in order to manage risk in the project. To do this, we designed a tool called a Technology Readiness Level calculator to automatically calculate and demonstrate the technology readiness levels of all the SKA’s critical technology elements, allowing us to assess and track their maturity in an intuitive way.
Using our calculator, we can describe the readiness level in a more accurate and informative way using various indicators, each with their own level of maturity. The result of this work is a system of intuitive ‘rosette’ diagrams which instantly show the state of development of several maturity aspects for a given technology. Based on the results, we can reduce the risk of failure in engineering management and technology development in the SKA, which is of great help to efficiently manage the project.
That sounds extremely useful, and not just for the SKA. Do you think there could be potential applications for such a tool beyond the SKA, maybe in the space industry or other large-scale engineering projects?
Yes, absolutely. The calculator uses a configurable architecture to manage and measure technology maturity. By replacing the criteria, the system can calculate readiness levels for different domains or engineering projects.
You’ve been involved closely with the SKA for a year now. Tell us, what do you find particularly interesting about the SKA project?
During my secondment, I was lucky to visit the SKA’s South African site in the Karoo in 2016, and saw how 29 dishes of MeerKAT, the South African SKA precursor telescope, work together to perform observations. It was eye-opening. When built, the SKA will become the world’s largest radio telescope by far – and even the largest science facility on the planet! Using hundreds of dishes and thousands of antennas connected together, it’ll be even more powerful – and much more complex – than the Lovell Telescope. What I find particularly fascinating about it is the challenge to make so many devices work together as one, and process such huge amounts of data in a short time using existing technologies.
Many scientists and engineers can think back to a moment or experience that started their career path. What made you want to become an engineer?
Twenty years ago, I was still a high school student when I saw and used a computer for the first time. I was shocked and then deeply attracted by the functions of computers, such as database management, playing games, painting and so on. However, I found it was not easy to use a computer, as I had to remember a lot of operation commands. After I entered university, my supervisor taught me about a more natural way to interact with computers: through vision-based interaction. Such interaction captures users’ behaviours such as body movements and hand gestures using cameras, and understands their meaning through video analysis. Vision-based interaction is very helpful for human-computer interaction, especially in terms of wearable computing and augmented reality. I think that’s one of the things that led me to want to become a computer engineer, which is something I really enjoy doing to this day.
Actually, the basic principle behind the SKA project, which is to integrate many antennas to get higher resolutions, can be applied to improve the accurateness of human-computer interaction by using multiple cameras. And of course, the improved image processing algorithms could also be used to speed up image/video analysis for human-computer interaction.
We know that work can be intensive and stressful at times, so keeping a healthy work-life balance is very important [The SKA Office subsidises gym membership to encourage staff to exercise]. When you are not working, what do you like to do to relax? Any hobbies like music or sports?
Badminton and table tennis are my favourite sports. I have played badminton for more than 6 years and I really like this sport which not only keeps me healthy, but also lets me make many friends. While in the UK, I joined a badminton club in Wilmslow [where the SKA secondees are lodged], and played badminton every Monday with players from many different countries, which was a fantastic experience.
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