UCD spin-in OCE Technology reaches for the stars with satellite technology
11 April 2017
The story of UCD spin-in company OCE Technology story begins, unusually, with a young man from a village in China. Jun Yan did well academically and came to do his PhD in Dublin City University (DCU), supported by the Chinese Government and the Eolas scholarship scheme.
On completion of his PhD in robotics at DCU’s School of Mechanical Engineering, he worked as a lecturer in the School of Computing and, together with the Head of School, Prof Michael Ryan and Dr James Power, wrote a book on fuzzy logic (Using Fuzzy Logic, Prentice Hall 1994). By the time the book was completed, John (as he was known here) had moved to Canada and established a business there. In the late 1990s, he returned to China and founded Zhuhai Orbita Control Engineering in Zhuhai, one of China’s new economic zones just across the Pearl River from Hong Kong.
Over a number of years, his company developed a range of products including system-on-chips (SoCs) based on Sun’s open-source SPARC processor. This particular type of chip is used widely by the European Space Agency (ESA) and by the space programmes in China, India and elsewhere.
Software tool to debug software applications
Fast forward to January 2013, when John phoned three old friends, the late Chris Fairclough, Gerry Clarke and Michael Ryan, and invited them to visit his company in Zhuhai. There he told them about a new SoC with four SparcV8 CPUs and 34 other functional units due to be released and asked if they would develop a software tool to help debug software applications on this complex system.
In the old days, debugging embedded applications was simpler. There were discrete chips for different functions, e.g. processor, memory controller, serial lines, memory, etc. To figure out what was happening, it was possible to replace the processor with an in-circuit emulator, attach a logic analyser, use an oscilloscope and so on. However, on today’s SOCs, with all the functional units encased in a single chip, a different approach must be taken and hence the need for advanced debug tools.
Coming back to Ireland with the assurance of sales into China, the three friends set up a company to develop the software tool needed for John’s new high-performance chip. OCE Technology was born. The first activity was to headhunt Barry Kavanagh as CEO. He had worked with both Chris and Michael in the past – and a small team of developers was assembled in offices in Bray, Co. Wicklow. Soon thereafter, the first version of the tool was delivered to China in time for the launch tour of the new processor.
Given that these tools are used by engineers designing systems for space applications, OCE approached the ESA to see if it had any interest. It happened that the only other provider of such tools had just been purchased by a US company and the ESA was keen to see another European company involved in this area.
It also had some ideas for new approaches to debugging on these highly integrated SOCs. So, with the ESA’s ideas and support, and help from Ireland’s ESA delegate Tony McDonald of Enterprise Ireland, OCE commenced work on further developing the unique features of its debug tool.
Technology behind OCE’s debug tool DMON
OCE’s debug tool DMON connects to the target system-on-chip through an interface that is a bus master on the SOC’s internal bus. This interface can be serial, Ethernet, USB, JTAG, or Spacewire. A functional unit called a DSU provides access to processor registers, all other functional devices are memory mapped. The tool when started identifies the SOC to which is connected and creates a dynamic schematic of the units on the chip.
Developers can graphically drill-down through this to view and control functional units. Software can be loaded and its activity monitored. Test scripts can be written in TCL or Python. These facilities, combined with data monitoring and graphing and remote client/server access make DMON unique and the debug tool of choice for use with SOCs.
Some €500,000 in funding to support DMON’s development and an initial sales and marketing operation came from sales in China, from ESA, and from Enterprise Ireland’s High Potential Start-up (HPSU) scheme, which matched private investment in the company.
As Orbita supplies high quality components into the aerospace sector in China, an obvious next step for OCE was to outsource these from Orbita for supply into the European and other markets. Orbita supplies OCE branded products, including very advanced system on chip devices such as the radiation hardened E698PM, other simpler devices, and extremely robust system in package devices with multiple components encapsulated in a single solid block.
It was no surprise to find that not only European customers were interested but also Indian, Russian and South Korean. OCE has been signing up distributors in these regions and sales are now under way.
In September 2015, OCE moved to new headquarters at NovaUCD, the Centre of New Ventures and Entrepreneurs at University College Dublin to take advantage of access to the university’s knowledge and resources. For example, UCD MSc students of Space Science and Technology should prove to be a great asset to the company.
OCE’s partner in China provides high technology, space-qualified components to the organisations in China who build the subsystems used in satellites, and in late 2016 introduced OCE to a number of these companies. As all satellites involve similar subsystems for stabilisation, attitude control, power supply and other functions there is a market outside China for these subsystems.
Restrictions on travel can make it difficult for high technology companies in China to address this market and they were happy to sign agreements with OCE to promote their products outside of China.
The subsystems adopted by OCE are primarily used for power or to bring a satellite into a desired orientation in space and to a desired spin rate. To do this, the star-tracker subsystem matches the stars in its field of view with those in an internal map, allowing orientation and spin rate be determined.
An on-board sun sensor provides further information, as do magnetometers that measure the strength and direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. Reaction wheels are then used by the onboard computer to provide the torques required to orient the satellite and control its spin, with a magnetorquer subsystem applying further torques by interacting with Earth’s magnetic field.
To address the power requirements of the satellite, OCE can provide a range of space-qualified batteries, recharged by solar arrays, which can be customised according to satellite mission requirements. All of these subsystems are of the highest quality, made by the organisations that supply the Chinese space program, and have flight heritage, in some cases having flown on over twenty satellites.
OCE launched this aspect of its business in March 2017 at the Paris Space Week, the premier B2B space event in Europe this year.
Future plans for OCE Technology
So what next? Orbita is launching a constellation of low orbit satellites for hyperspectral earth observation. Already, it has built a ground station in its high-tech industrial park and is also building a datacentre and satellite services campus to collect data from Chinese satellites including its own hyperspectral data.
As these low-orbit satellites orbit the planet, they are collecting vast amounts of data that needs to be transmitted back to Earth as regularly as possible to minimise the storage requirements on the satellite itself. This means that ground stations are required outside of China to facilitate download when the satellites are over territories on the other side of the world. Ireland is an ideal location for such a ground station, being on the westernmost part of Europe before the Atlantic Ocean. OCE is currently planning to build a ground station similar to that of its Chinese partner.
Given the ability of its partner to build complete satellites and access launch facilities in China, the next logical step for OCE Technology is to offer complete satellite builds and launch services. This is a few years away, but the company believes in reaching for the stars, or at least for low Earth orbit to begin with, and is confident it will happen.
And all of this is built on what the Chinese call ‘关系’ or ‘Guanxi’. Chinese business is performed on the back of close personal relationships, in OCE’s case the relationship between a PhD student from China and his Irish friends.
Barry Kavanagh is the chief executive officer of OCE Technology. To find out more about the company, visit www.ocetechnology.com.