Industry Involvement

Although the primary focus of the SKA project will be to undertake discovery-based science, an instrument with such a revolutionary capacity is certain to advance our understanding in a range of other fields, including unexpected paradigm-shifts in non-science areas. 

In particular, the project's design and construction has the potential to produce significant technological and economic spin-offs in a range of areas such as ICT, electronics, digital receivers and renewable energy. These are areas of particular interest to industry. Many Australian companies are engaged with project through the Australian SKA Office.

Below are examples of Australian companies who have contributed to the design and construction of the Australian SKA.

Case Studies 

Collapsed - Satellites, Space Junk & Shock Jocks - SKA precursor helps track objects in Australian skies

Prof. Steven Tingay at the Murchison Widefield Array

Credit: Murchison Widefield Array Project and Curtin University


What do breakfast radio, space junk and the SKA have in common? They’re all part of a new, ingeniously simple technique to monitor and protect valuable assets in space.

Astronomers at the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) are partnering with Adelaide company, Silentium Defence to harness one of Australia’s two SKA precursor telescopes, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA). The MWA will be used to detect and track satellites and space junk orbiting the earth, helping to evaluate the risk of collisions.

While looking for faint radio waves from the cosmos, the super-sensitive radio telescope will also detect terrestrial radio waves, like those transmitted by FM radio stations, as they bounce off objects in Earth’s orbit. This effectively makes MWA a passive radar system tracking reflected radio waves from existing sources rather than emitting its own high-power radio transmissions as military and commercial radars do.

In this way, MWA can track objects as far as 1000km away and travelling at incredible speeds –ideal for monitoring valuable and strategic assets in space.

“In low-Earth orbit, the typical speed of objects is about 8 kilometres a second, so even something weighing 100 grams, centimetres in size, at that speed could destroy a billion-dollar communications satellite without much trouble,” Curtin University’s John Curtin Distinguished Professor Steven Tingay said.

This novel research-industry partnership has recently secured an Australian Government Defence Innovation Hub contract to develop new situational awareness capabilities for Defence.


 MWA telescope detects FM radio bouncing off space junk


 Credit: ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO)/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Silentium Defence well placed to succeed in Australia’s burgeoning space industry

Silentium Defence is an Australian-owned and based SME which spun out of the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST Group) in 2017. Experts in passive radar techniques, they employ expert engineers, project managers and support staff, and have ambitions to become a global leader exporting high technology products.

“We are living proof that investment in research-to-industry collaboration and deep-tech commercialisation works,” Silentium Defence CEO Dr James Palmer said.

Prof. Tingay, who still works closely with DST Group, notes that Silentium Defence’s emergence is a “great example of multi-sector, multi-agency, and academic-industry collaboration”, but highlights that “translational research between academia and industry takes time and persistence”.

With the establishment of the Australian Space Agency and efforts to position Australia as a player in the global space industry, Silentium Defence is well placed for future commercial success.

Astrophysical knowledge proves useful for practical domains

ICRAR is a joint venture between Curtin University and The University of Western Australia, supported with funding from the West Australian state government. One of ICRAR’s goals is to translate fundamental astrophysical knowledge into practical domains – and the current partnership with SIlentium Defence does just that.

Linking with private sector companies is one way in which radio astronomers like Prof. Tingay are able to bridge the gap between “blue sky” astronomical research and commercial applications.

“Translating from astrophysics and radio astronomy into other areas that are more commercially relevant and more socially relevant is really important. The SKA’s great, astrophysics is great, but we also have a high degree of relevance in much more real-world areas of activity,” he said.

MWA’s spin-off success spells good news for the SKA

WiFi is possibly the most famous spin-off benefit produced as a result of radio astronomy research, a technology that is now used worldwide in homes, businesses and industry.

So, can we expect the same sort of benefits from the SKA?

“Absolutely,” Prof. Tingay affirmed.

“The MWA is a very flexible instrument that allows for novel use. The passive radar capability is one of a number with commercial potential,” Prof. Tingay said in relation to its capacity for non-astronomy applications.

“With respect to passive radar for Space Situational Awareness, the SKA will be approximately 50 times more powerful than the MWA. This will allow the SKA to potentially detect and track more objects of smaller size to considerably larger distances.”

Professor Tingay believes the novel uses of radio astronomy are an often overlooked benefit of investment in the field.

“If the development of these capabilities is properly supported, in collaboration with industry partners, the MWA may be able to generate revenue from commercial activities that benefit the nation, diversifying the MWA operations revenue streams, and generating new jobs outside astronomy,” he said.

“Even capturing a very small fraction of the global Space Situational Awareness economy would pay for the MWA many times over.”

The other Australian SKA precursor, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), is also showing promise of delivering non-astronomy benefits. CSIRO believes its innovative ‘phased array feed’ receivers have an untapped potential for usage in geophysics and the medical field.

It’s not just the stars that look bright for radio astronomers. With the potential benefits of the SKA yet to even be imagined, the future does too. 

For more information, please see ICRAR's media release.

Collapsed - Astrocompute in the Cloud - International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research

The data processing needs of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) present a significant challenge and opportunity for the project.

The SKA Science Data Processor (SDP) is expected to process up to 1 terabyte per second of data and create around 200-300 petabytes of data products each year. The SDP element of the SKA focuses on the design of the computing platforms, software and algorithms needed to process data from the correlator into science data products.

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) has been closely investigating Cloud computing as a means of addressing the SKA data storage and processing capabilities required by the international user community. Cloud computing refers to the practice of using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage and process data, rather than a local server or personal computer. Due to the large amounts of data, it was acknowledged early in the design process that a single data centre with a limited power budget was insufficient to process and analyse the data needed.

Realizing the huge potential offered by one of the largest public service Big Data projects in the world, Amazon Web Services (AWS) established a grant program to support international radio astronomy research. The program, Astrocompute in the Cloud, is administered by the SKA's project headquarters in the United Kingdom. Following a call for proposals in April 2015, ICRAR-led proposals were successfully awarded more than $50,000 under the program, which was around a quarter of the total funds available. 

The data pipeline of the SKA’s Science Data Processor will be a complex network producing petabytes of information yearly. Image Credit: ICRAR/Peter Ryan

Cloud environments are changing the way software and workflows are designed. These usage patterns are closely monitored by Cloud providers who are eager to cater for Bid Data analytics. As such, the SKA, and in particular the SDP, is at the cutting edge of this rapidly increasing multi-billion dollar market.

Collapsed - Balance Utility Solutions

The SKA will have significant power requirements that must be delivered at remote locations in mid-west Western Australia. Supported under the Australian SKA Pre-construction Grants Program, Balance Utility Solutions are working with Curtin University to understand and deliver the power requirements for the Low Frequency Aperture Array (LFAA) component of the SKA. The LFAA refers to the set of antennas, on board amplifiers and local processors which are required to receive signals from the lowest frequency band for the SKA. A major challenge for the consortium is the sheer scale of work to be undertaken with well over a hundred thousand antennas to be built in Australia to exact specifications.

Balance Utility Solutions seeks to service the growing market for integrated and sustainable energy solutions. They have considerable experience working on the development and delivery of large scale energy infrastructure projects.

The company has greatly assisted Curtin University in examining the feasibility of novel LFAA power solutions, and in developing an optimum power distribution strategy. In particular, the work has demonstrated that using an alternating current in power reticulation to LFAA core station, with medium voltage direct current at the stations, the preferred solution in terms of cost, efficiency and radio quietness. In addition it was found that stand alone solar stations were a practical and efficient approach to supplying power to remote LFAA stations. 

AAVS1 array power distribution control unit (developed by Balance Utility Solutions) unboxed and under EMC test in the ICRAR/Curtin anechoic chamber.  Credit: Curtin/ICRAR.

Balance is now working on the design of power systems for an LFAA prototype with Curtin, including the design and prototyping of the LFAA station power distributor.

Balance CEO Rod Hayes says "working on the SKA alongside Curtin University and ICRAR has created unique opportunities for Balance technical staff and the business and has positively assisted in broadening Balance's capabilities, especially in the area of highly distributed low power, low-cost, radio-quiet inverters."   

MRO optical fibre.pngDirectional drilling activities at the MRO designed to route optical fibre to the MRO Control Building while complying with indigenous heritage requirements.  Credit: Curtin/ICRAR.

The company has worked closely with the University throughout the SKA Pre-construction Stage, with Balance also providing training opportunities for Curtin Students. This has included the placement of a PhD student currently working with the company.


More information on Balance Utility Solutions can be found at: 


Collapsed - Innovation Composites

Innovation Composites, a company based in Nowra, NSW, is a precision composites and fibreglass manufacturer. They have expertise that has evolved from the marine industry into a broader spectrum of work.

CSIRO is working with Innovation Composites to develop and produce radio frequency interference (RFI) - Shielded, high-strength, weather-proof and insulated casings for ASKAP's PAF receivers that are lighter and more cost-effective the previous designs. 

To house the PAF receivers, installed on ASKAP antennas, the design must integrate a number of functional requirements into a single part robust enough to endure the extreme climate and remote nature of the MRO.

The company works closely with CSIRO engineers to develop and manufacture a made to order design that will meet the special requirements demanded by the working environment of ASKAP. Success was achieved through applying the specialist production knowledge of Innovation Composites to the challenge of radio frequency interference - a well-known obstacle in radio astronomy.

The PAF casing design incorporates marine composites technology to manage structural loading, thermal insulation and environmental protection in a single part. The casing uses a multi-skin foam-covered composite design with both glass-fibre and carbon-fibre reinforcement.

The carbon-fibre will also provide a level of RFI shielding, isolating the ASKAP receivers' internal electronics from the radio-quiet atmosphere of the MRO - home to CSIRO's ASKAP telescope.

The design also demonstrates how the application of industrial skills from disparate fields can be applied to problems in the construction of instruments for advanced science.

Collapsed - Puzzle Precision

A project on the scale of ASKAP relies on industry providing expertise in production, construction, installation and commissioning to demanding requirements. Such a project also introduces technical challenges that must be overcome in the design and construction of the telescope's components.

Advanced high-performance PAF receivers mounted on ASKAP antennas will produce an instantaneous and wide field-of-view using simultaneous electronic beams. 
CSIRO is working with Puzzle Precision to jointly develop and produce sophisticated electronic circuit boards and major components for ASKAP's digital systems. Puzzle precision is a high-reliability electronic assembly service provider based in Newcastle, NSW. The high quality and accurate assembly and inspection service provided by Puzzle Precision ensures large scale delivery of intricate and complex electronics boards for ASKAP.

What first started as a handful of simple boards assembled for CSIRO's Compact Array Broadband Backend (CABB) project has now grown to thousands of units of complex boards and mechanical assemblies. These form part of ASKAP's innovative PAF receivers and associated digital systems. Achieving exceptionally high yield on these cutting edge, high-volume, printed circuit boards is crucial to the project's success.

The ability of Puzzle Precision to meet the stringent demands of ASKAP demonstrates how small industry partners can provide industry-specific expertise to meet the requirements of highly technical equipment. 

The relationship with CSIRO and the ASKAP team have contributed to the expanded production base of the company. Australian capability in the production of mission critical, highly reliable electronics has also been enhanced.

Collapsed - Aavid Thermacore Europe (via JHC Specialised Solutions)

Forming part of CSIRO’s radio telescope, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), the Phased Array Feed (PAF) creates 36 simultaneous beams to give greater resolution to radio images of the sky. PAF includes a requirement to maintain a low and stable temperature. This is crucial for system performance and reliability. A custom-designed groundplane has been developed to minimise temperature gradients and maintain predictable temperature uniformity across the highly sensitive electronics over the course of long observations.  

Aavid Thermacore Europe is a world-leader in the field of passive thermal management systems. They specialise in the custom design, development and manufacture of highly-engineered components. CSIRO has engaged with Thermacore, via local agents JHC Specialised Solutions, to design and prototype the PAF groundplane. The groundplane features embedded heat pipes for thermal management. The pipes, designed by Thermacore, are based off of a design developed and provided through CSIRO. 

Steve Barker, project leader at CSIRO, recently visited from Sydney, Australia to present a plaque to staff at Aavid Thermacore Europe’s Ashington staff thanking them for their support with the ASKAP project. “Throughout their time working on the project, the staff at Aavid Thermacore continually went above and beyond to provide support and guidance to our engineers on-site in Australia. “Their knowledge and expertise in thermal management has enabled us to progress with the project, so I am delighted to present them with a Recognition Award for all of their hard work.“


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