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Playing Hacker With Billion-Dollar Telescopes

Engineer Danielle George, who will present the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures on hacking, repurposes tech used to listen for the Big Bang for earthly applications.
November 24, 2014, 7:40pm

​It's the hacker/maker's modus operandi: tinkering with one bit of tech to make something completely different. Now imagine that bit of tech you're playing around with is some highly sophisticated radio astronomy instrumentation usually used in billion-dollar space projects.

That's a privilege of Danielle George, a professor of radio frequency engineering at Manchester University. She's been involved in designing the kinds of highly sensitive tools that are looking for traces of the Big Bang, but she's also taking fundamentally the same technology and applying it to totally different areas, like helping farmers to water their crops more effectively or Rolls Royce design more efficient engines. It's like tinkering, making, hacking—whatever you like to call it—at a really advanced level. Some people have all the fun.

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"When you start doing it, you find that there are so many different purposes you could use it for that you'd never have thought of," George said about her wireless communications tech. "My research was very much for astrophysics, and I hadn't thought at the time about branching out."

Taking one piece of tech and making something new out of it is the theme of this year's Roy​al Institution Christ​mas Lectures, which George will deliver in December. The three talks, broadcast on BBC Four, will feature three pieces of tech we take for granted in our homes and explore how they can be hacked into something new. George said she wants to transform the lightbulb, the telephone, and the motor into something that could never have been imagined by inventors Joseph Swan, Alexander Graham Bell, and Michael Faraday (who, incidentally, started the Christmas Lectures back in 1825).

It's intended to be fun and inspire young people—George said she thinks engineering has something of an "image issue" in the UK—but also to show the kind of attitude needed to address the grand e​ngineering ch​allenges. "From a very serious point of view, we need innovators and people to be ingenious and inventive, to solve some of the really big challenges that we face in the future," she said, and cited energy, security, food shortages, and medical tasks such as rev​erse-engineering the human brain as examples.

Her own work is an example of how engineers can contribute to these challenges with a hacker mindset. An electric and electronic engineer, she designs and characterises instrumentation for the upcoming Square Kilometre Array—which will be the world's largest​ radio telescope—and the Atac​ama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescopes in Chile, along with other space projects.

She gave the example of trying to pick up signals of the cosmic microwave background, thought to be a remnant of the Big Bang. "It's very very weak, and you want to be able to receive that signal because you want to understand how the universe began and what we can learn from those very early moments of the universe, but you don't want to add any more signal onto that very weak signal," she explained. Hence the need to develop very delicate instruments.

But that technology can be useful in other fields. George talked me through one way it could help save resources, especially in developing countries: precision agriculture. A boom on the back of a tractor contains electronics that communicate wirelessly with subsoil sensors to tell if the part of the field it's crossing has enough water, food, pesticides, and so on before the crops have even sprouted through the ground. "So you can just spray the parts of the field that need it and you're making a much more intelligent use of water."

Meanwhile, she's using the same basic idea in engine testing with Rolls Royce. Here, sensitive wireless communication in industrial gas turbine engines help feed back information during ground tests that could lead to more efficient energy consumption.

George is hoping to show in her lectures that any piece of tech—the obsolete motors in your VCR, say—can be repurposed. Avoiding spoilers, she teased that each lecture will solve a series of challenges before turning each original device into "something really big." Rehearsals so far have apparently involved buckets of water, paint, food, and a lot of lightbulbs.

Ahead of the lectures, the RI has launched an online "hack gallery" for hackers to show off their own creations, most of which seem to be veering toward the more frivolous side of the spectrum. An Etch-a-Sketch t​hat tells the time? A Mi​necraft controlled robot arm? A "spinnin​g bicycle wheel thing"? Why not.

George said she hadn't realised quite how big or diverse the maker movement was; hackspaces have blossomed in the UK over the past fe​w y​ears. "When you've got imaginations like some of these people have, the possibilities seem to be endless," she said.