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Interoperable, ultra-low profile, high-gain satcom on the move

Oliver Kent

Boldly going where no engineer has gone before

PROFILE

Oliver Kent

Lead Hardware Engineer


EXPERIENCE

Expert in high-speed digital and embedded design after 10 years’ experience working in satellite communications systems and processors, mobile payment systems, high speed ADC/DAC and SerDes IP, 4G and wireless backhaul and MCU/MPU design. Started with Renasas Electronics, moving through Airspan Networks, Ultra Electronics, Socionext and Miura Systems before entering the space business with Airbus Defence & Space and SatixFy.


EDUCATION

BEng Electronic Engineering (Applied), University of Reading

“We’re not building one antenna but 4,000 on each of our transmit and receive arrays,” says Lead Hardware Engineer Oliver Kent. “This involves some 150 printed circuit boards, 17 of which are unique. To get the high performance we need, they’ve got to be orchestrated to the nanosecond.”

That is today’s challenge but there will be an endless number for hungry innovators. “While this is our launch product for inflight comms, there will be many more versions – different frequencies for aero variants, plus land and maritime applications.” Kent is highlighting the modularity and scalability of Hanwha Phasor’s antenna design, which can meet the missions and link budgets for individual customers precisely.

Hanwha Phasor is big enough to count but small enough for really high quality collaboration

He adds: “On top of this, we have a 52-week lead time on many of our components. What we are doing is near simultaneous productisation and design.”

Yet he does not see these as onerous challenges. “After all, engineering is essentially problem-solving.”

Kent has form. He has worked at the bleeding edge of hardware technology on monster ASIC chips at Socionext. His first foray into satcom through RF and digital control – 28G optical SerDes networks at Airbus – will be operating in space for the next 30 years. However, work at Hanwha Phasor is a whole new ball game. “Designing hardware for phased array for mobile satcom, especially for aircraft, is a giant leap by anyone’s standards.”

When it comes to schematic design work, his enthusiasm becomes obvious. “There are literally years of fun ahead in this, especially if you like a heavy slice of engineering alongside physics and maths.“

Kent, like so many engineers, started taking mechanical things apart as a kid to see how they worked but it was the opaque nature of electronics that really intrigued him. He was obsessed by understanding how they worked and was unusual in his teenage conviction: “I just said ‘out of the gate’ that I wanted to study electronics at university.” His other goal was to work on space projects. Hanwha Phasor feels like a sweet spot for him, faster moving than pure space programmes, yet just as complex.

And there’s a mix of compelling reasons to work here, he says.

We’re the original innovators in this field and we’re the right size for the job

“Our satcom customers want enterprise-grade bandwidth – interoperable, ultra-low profile and high performance. To achieve all this, we need to focus an extremely narrow beam on a satellite at least 300km away – and further in higher orbits. Our antenna will be mounted on an aircraft’s skin and will have to cope with the speed, roll, pitch and yaw of a moving aircraft. While all this is going on, it will need to switch between low earth orbiting satellites every six to ten minutes.

Pioneering a new product makes all the pieces of this puzzle endlessly fascinating for me

Kent has ten years’ experience, which includes Airbus, global semi-conductor manufacturer Renasas and the modem and integrated circuit start-up and antenna provider SatixFy. He feels there is an optimum size for companies tackling multi-layered challenges.

Social engineering

Hanwha Phasor’s technology and physical set-up makes for richly rewarding teamwork.

“By their very nature, phased arrays involve a wide range of engineering design expertise: antenna, software, electro-mechanical, test, software, systems, RF. There’s a very high density of very specialised experts here, all of whom work very closely together. There’s plenty of socialising too.

“I can talk face to face with experts in all these fields easily – we are spread across two floors in the same building,” Kent explains. “I haven’t experienced this anywhere else. If your company is too small, it is hard to attract talented people like ours. If your company is too big, they are not readily accessible. Hanwha Phasor is big enough to count but small enough for really high-quality collaboration.

“Working on RF and digital control for a phased array at Airbus was inevitably complex as it sits on a satellite. However, I was restricted to working on a smaller, more specialised part of that programme. As a digital engineer here, the joy lies in bringing all the components of a highly complex distributed system into a controlled state and working in concert. I see hardware as the trunk of the antenna ‘tree’ – core to the whole design.”

Here, I am constantly pushed to do new things, talk about my career for the long term and plan how to realise those ambitions

We’ve got the right mix of fresh and experienced minds and an open culture

“Hire bright people and let them get on with it. That’s often quoted here and it’s absolutely right.

“In other companies, I generally had to follow ‘the way we did it before’. Not here. There isn’t an entrenched way of doing things. I get to design and influence the overall architecture and we’re designing lots of components from scratch.“

Designing hardware for phased array for mobile satcom, especially for aircraft, is a giant leap by anyone’s standards

Remember the hundred odd PCBs and 17 individual designs that go into Hanwha Phasor’s aero antenna? “With most electronics projects, it’s a couple of control boards and then you are done,” says Kent.

As soon as he joined, he began pitching ideas. Some ideas have worked; some haven’t but he is always encouraged to put them out there.

“Why not have a standard issue debug interface for our processors? It was quick to implement and there are now around 20 units in the London office. Now it has been adopted as standard.”

We have plenty of opportunities to get on and lead

“In the past, if I wanted a promotion, or to work on more interesting things and acquire new skills, the only way was to change jobs.” That’s why he joined Hanwha Phasor in early 2021 as it offered a long-term opportunity.

Thanks to his strong technical and communication skills and the rapid growth of the business, he progressed fast.

“Here, I am constantly pushed to do new things, talk about my career for the long term and plan how to realise those ambitions.”

Early this year, Kent was made a team lead, his first experience of management.

“It’s working well. My boss does the high-level project management and planning, leaving me to focus on delivering our product. I suggest key tasks to people who I think will enjoy them. We take turns doing things that don’t appeal much personally but so far each of us is working to our interests and strengths and ploughing individual results back into the team effort.”

This is a sweet spot for him, faster moving than pure space programmes, yet just as complex

Key challenges lie in making sure specialists across the business understand team thinking and negotiate the optimum compromises between functional inputs.

“Those aspects go hand in hand,” he says. “If the mechanical engineers understand why we need more space for a component, they can find a way to give us more surface area without increasing the depth of what must remain a low-profile chassis.

“It’s the same for procurement or operations. Our people are highly experienced so I’m very happy to learn from them. Knowing their priorities and pain points is essential for designing something that can be manufactured at scale and in a reasonable timeframe.”

Kent’s priority is freeing up design engineers to do what they like best: design.

“I find the best innovation comes when you’ve got a tight brief. And you need great project planning. We get both from the experienced hands here, especially in aviation compliance which is extremely demanding. Ditto the documentation. We have the support of a specialist aerospace consultancy in Toulouse who really know what they’re doing.

“Pioneering a new product makes all the pieces of this puzzle endlessly fascinating for me. And I’ll admit, I look forward to telling my kids when they are older that Dad boldly went where no one had been before.” He adds: “Of course, our technology will be mainstream by then and seamless connectivity across the planet won’t be interesting at all. It won’t be the first time that outstanding engineering is simply taken for granted.”




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