An Interview With Kerry Clapham
Updated: Jul 27, 2020
Can you tell me a bit about your career path and what led you to the role you're in today? I.e. What did you study at University, extracurricular activities, mentors, internships, what are you currently studying etc?
Since primary school I’ve been interested in electronics and fascinated at how GPS units can detect a change in position by just moving a few metres. At high school I studied physics, maths, chemistry and technology, where a highlight was attending the annual local science and technology fair. The natural progression was studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Canterbury. We did a number of course projects at uni including my final year project developing a demonstration of wireless power transfer. I joined the University tramping club and spent a lot of weekends on trips; the quiet time backcountry really helped think clearer and gave me time to process the week’s learning. I partially funded my studies by working in the entertainment industry as a lighting technician and resource coordinator. These jobs had a good physical and practical element, which I found enjoyable as a paid break from study.
Also, of great interest to me is power systems and distribution. One summer worked with the Electrical Power Engineering Centre on campus on a distribution network project problem. The EPE Centre was a huge support to my studies and their field trips really added context to the material we covered in class.
I made the decision to focus on communications after discovering the skills employers require for this field (such as perseverance and lateral thinking) closely matched the engineering I had studied and the creativity and coordination of live productions. The decision to move quickly and decisively to seize an opportunity to begin my postgraduate studies in Southland put me ahead and jump-started my career in aerospace.
Images: Kerry Clapham
What were some of your early roles in the field?
I’ve been designing a large 3.7 m steerable antenna for Great South. This antenna will be used for locally downloading information from spacecraft. One application is downloading inferred images of New Zealand measuring land and sea temperature differences. The antenna requires mechanical, electronic, software and Radio Frequency design.
What are some big projects you’re working on now or that you’ve finished up in the last few months?
I have just changed the focus of my studies from a ME to a PhD. The PhD topic is the “Development of real-time minimalistic modelling to determine spacecraft position”. My proposal uses multiple stations based across New Zealand to receive timed signals from spacecraft. At its heart is a sophisticated mathematical model that will accurately pinpoint the location and trajectory of the spacecraft.
What do you enjoy most about the work you do? / What are you most excited about right now?
With satellite telecommunications there is diverse range of problems to be solved covering multiple disciplines. No day is the same and there are plenty of problems to work away on. I’m currently constucting software so one of our customers can talk to our shiny new antenna. The work we do is rewarding and has a direct impact to our customers mission success.
Who are some of the people that have contributed most to your career? Dr Chris Hann based at the University of Canterbury has a deep understanding of maths and its role in all aspects of design. His deep knowledge offers a fresh and highly effective perspective on complex problems distilling them down to realizable elements. This methodology has been a huge inspiration.
Robin McNeill and Stephen Canny at Great South have been huge help. Their long-term vison for building a ground segment in New Zealand has been well thought out. They have guided me through the principals behind satellite telecommunication.
Why is NZ being used to communicate with satellites?
Southlands’s low population density and well managed spectrum gives it a competitive advantage. Here in Southland we have a very low noise floor and little interference. This means it is possible to receive weak signals here. Being in the southern hemisphere gives us another advantage as there are very few ground station locations in the southern hemisphere. Additionally, polar orbiting Low Earth satellites pass over the north and south pole every 90 minutes and being closer to the south pole gives us more passes.
Image: Awarua Satellite Ground Station - Dave Allen NIWA
Where is the satellite tracking and communications industry in NZ going to be heading in the next 10 or so years?
The cost of launching satellites is decreasing and we are seeing increasing an increasing number of satellites launched. There is therefore increased demand downlink capability; however the increase in volume will be in part be met through better utilization of resources. For example, tight management of radio spectrum and a shift into specialist high frequency data links and larger antennas capable of higher data throughput. The increase in volume of satellites, and high frequency telecommunication links will require more precise tracking of spacecraft location. What has surprised you most about working in this industry? Telecommunications is a challenging topic, things are constantly evolving. Even those who you might expect to know ‘everything’ are also continually learning. There is also a lot more to the job then just engineering: project management, customer relations and soft skills are all very important.
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a job like yours?
Enthusiasm, attention to detail, flexibility, literacy and people skills, engineering maths and physics. The extra knowledge picked up by attending lectures, completing practical exercises and extra-curricular activities helps build the context for decision making.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face day-to-day?
Large projects, typical in the aerospace field have a lot of moving parts. It’s important to be aware of what’s happening around you and the context of the part you are working on. This includes how it fits in with the rest of the system, its sustainability and how it delivers against your project or customers’ expectations. However, at the same time it’s also important to be focused, concise and design a quality solution that’s reliable.
What do you see as big growth opportunities in Canterbury in the aerospace sector? We are currently seeing an increase in aerospace applications for the capturing and forwarding of data. This ranges from networking through to specific applications such as surveying. Aerospace tools include drones, gliders, rockets and satellites. All of these have one aspect in common, often overlooked and that is the need for reliable telecommunications.
How do you see this job changing in the next 10 years? Where we are now is certainly not fixed. Recently the cost of buying radio frequency components has decreased, catalysed by the rapid advances in cell phone technology. The cost of satellites has decreased, and accessibility of the internet has increased. The only thing that is constant is change. There is a continual drive for sustainable, ethical and fair access to data. RF, software and hardware engineering remain important for delivering sustainable relevant solutions.
Image: Awarua Satellite Ground Station - Hamish McCormick NIWA
Who or what motivates you personally?
I’m continually motivated by projects. There is nothing more rewarding seeing an elegant solution implemented.
Who or what spurs you on professionally?
I’m acutely aware of the sustainability challenges we are currently facing at the moment. Engineering if applied through the right lens, particularly with the Donut Economy model in mind allows us to achieve more across a broad range of performance measures for less resources.
What are you most proud of accomplishing?
Great South provides our customers with high quality telecommunications. It is satisfying ensuring our customers are online and their missions are successful. Over the past year we’ve worked to build an antenna that will deliver high quality competitive service for New Zealand’s aerospace community.