As business development manager for Logica CMG's Space and Defence Division, Pat Norris has been charged with creating the IT infrastructure for some of Europe's more exotic public and private sector projects.
ZDNet UK caught up with Norris to discuss the UK integrator's role in the ill-fated Mars probe Beagle 2, a separate Saturn mission and the politically tense Galileo project -- a European civilian rival to the US military's GPS system.
How big is the Space and Defence Division of Logica?
We've got somewhere around 150 to 200 staff; Logica CMG as a whole has around 20,000. But Space and Defence is definitely a growth area. There have been lots of big projects recently because the Ministry of Defence is spending a lot of money on digitisation. Space is also growing but there are a smaller number of projects in space.
Logica was involved in providing a lot of the software for the Beagle 2 project, including programs that support the probe's communication with Earth. The mission failed to accomplish its objectives but are there any positive lessons you can take from the experience?
The jury is out. How many people knew a year ago that Britain was able to do this kind of thing - even consider building a probe capable of landing on Mars. But I hope people will almost begin to take for granted that we are capable of creating our own space vehicles.
Is there no way to spot Beagle from earth or from one of the US probes?
It's like searching for a needle in a haystack. If the parachute splayed out nicely it might just be possible to pick it out -- maybe two or three pixels.
What are your thoughts on what went wrong with Beagle?
I don't know. There are so many ways - it could have been a sharp rock that punctured the landing bags. It could be something as trivial as that. There needed to be more redundancy. Like the thing about the sharp stone. Beagle was covered in three rubber balloons; if one burst, it fell. The US had nine or more, so if one burst, then it's still enough to save it. They had more redundancy -- mainly because they had more weight allowance and more money.
Noises have been made about there being a Beagle 3 mission. Have you heard anything about that?
I think it will be a while. We need to wait till they've tried everything on Beagle 2. The European Space Agency (ESA) is set to have some kind of review board. No one is going to commit to anything until there is some kind of post-mortem. If the UK is involved -- I'd hope we'd be part of it.
There is another planetary probe that we were involved with which will land on Titan - one of Saturn's moons - in 11 months time. It's been travelling for seven years. We finished our work on it years ago. It's on board an American probe called Cassini - and the European probe is called Huygens, after the Dutch Astronomer. We are very interested in this area but it's not big business. It's good for publicity and good for attracting people who are interested in exotic problems.
You are also involved in the Galileo project -- Europe's rival to GPS.
Yes, it's been building up for the last two years. There is a precursor project called EGNOS which is funded by the aviation community - to take GPS information and broadcast correction and fault information so that GPS would be sufficiently reliable for aviation. That has been funded for about seven years and we've been involved in that from the start.
Who's paying for Galileo?
It is government funded because at the moment there is a free system available - GPS - that is paid for by the American government. So there is no way you can justify private sector funding since its competitor is free. Governments around Europe have recognised this. They are going to use a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) model to try to bring in some private finance but basically most of the cost will be underwritten by the private sector.
Why does Europe, and European airlines in particular, need its own satellite navigation system. Isn't GPS robust enough?
It's a military system - no guarantees. You're welcome to use it, but if it happens to be not working perfectly - then sorry, tough luck. With the EGNOS system, the aviation communities in America, Europe and Japan are making an investment in what is effectively ground infrastructure that monitors the satellites and if they detect a problem they can check it out. You have these reference receivers - you know where they are - and they are checking if GPS gives their position correctly all the time. Any faults or corrections are then broadcast via a commercial satellite (Inmarsat) and can be picked up by commercial aircraft.
So civilian aircraft require a more robust system than the military?
It's sad but military are prepared to accept the odd [glitch]... well, I suppose it's because military activities don't go on 24/7, 365 days a year. So they can't really justify the sort of reliability that the civil aviation community has to have. The military might accept 99.9 percent liability but for civil aviation you have to add a couple of nines on... five nines probably.
So is Galileo more advanced than GPS or just different?
It's a bit more advanced. But also it's just the fact that there will be more satellites, so it will be more reliable. [Galileo will have 27 satellites versus GPS's 24]. But they are very much complimentary. For the user, it's more and better rather than instead of.
The US government originally questioned the whole project, claiming it to be unnecessary given the existence of GPS.
Yes. Well, the US aviation industry weren't saying that - they were saying, 'good idea, and we won't have to pay for it'. So there has been a long negotiation with the US government, which has more or less been resolved. And now that the US government sees Galileo as going ahead, they have become more constructive. They were pretty unconstructive up until a year ago.
Do you think that has got anything to do with China's involvement and funding of Galileo?
No. I think it's got more to do with the US government trying to block it. It's a commercial threat to US industry. I don't think you have to look too much beyond that. It does complicate their life militarily but I think they now recognise that they have to accept it. I don't think the China thing was crucial because Europe is also being careful. They've said to China, 'you're in' but only up to a certain point. The Europeans are also a bit nervous about China.
What exactly is your role in this Galileo?
Although there are 27 satellites, there is also a huge ground infrastructure comprising computer intensive systems to provide the information that makes Galileo work. At the moment, we are prime contractor to design that facility -- a 7.5m euro contract from the European Space Agency (ESA).
Where are those facilities going to be based?
Well, somewhere in Europe. It's a hot political topic. From our point of view, we don't care. Every country would love to have it. The UK is on for it. Lord Sainsbury said the UK must have the operations facility. The Spaniards have said, 'we've built a facility, here it is'. And then there are the Italians and the Germans...
Is there any technical constraint on where it could be?
As long as there's good telecoms infrastructure... and near a major airport. A decision will have to be made soon. The PFI concessionary contractor will get to decide where it goes and he'll make that decision on commercial grounds. However, the commercial ground might be that he's offered a free site by a government. But in the meantime, before the concession contract is placed, ESA is developing four satellites to demonstrate and to remove technical risk. It will have to choose somewhere for its ground facilities, which may not necessarily be the same as that which the concessionary uses, but it could be the same. Wherever those ESA facilities go, then that country will have a good chance of hosting the main project. That is going to happen soon -- in the next six months.
What kind of systems will you use for this project?
A lot of the hardware has to be safety critical. The EGNOS system, because it is used for aviation, had to be certified by the Civil Aviation Authority. But you don't want it all requiring special hardware because the cost becomes astronomical. There is one part of the system that performs the final check on the information that is broadcast - we were prime contractors for that 10m euro deal, and it was built around a special operating system produced by a US company. Galileo will have similar requirements but some of it will be done on standard operating systems and off-the-shelf products.
But for us the main concern isn't the hardware; it's the software. The budget for the ground facilities for Galileo is around 300m euros, and a lot of that is for antennas and radio equipment. For the computer side - around 150m euros - nine tenths of that will be for software. Mostly it will be custom-built as this is a fairly unusual project. Almost all the real-time software will be custom-built.
Would you consider using open-source software, for example, Linux, in a critical project like this?
Certainly for the offline stuff we will look at Linux. For the real-time systems, there is talk of real-time Linux. It is a good question and I guess I don't know the answer but we'll know at the end of our design contract. Certainly I wouldn't rule out open-source for non-critical jobs. For safety-critical systems I would say no, but then again things change so fast in this industry I shouldn't be so adamant. Safety critical means you have to use certified components and I am not aware of any certified open-source systems but I could be wrong.
Are there any other Logica projects you can discuss?
These kind of projects are very popular with the staff. One thing we often say about projects is that they are not rocket science -- but this one is rocket science. The Skynet 5 satellite project is a £2.5bn contract we signed with the MoD in October. The aim is to provide a couple of communication satellites for the UK military so they can communicate with their troops. The MoD in its wisdom bought this under a PFI contract - it's the largest MoD PFI and we had a presentation today from the MoD saying it will remain the largest PFI for quite a while. The £2.5bn is to provide a service for 15 years.
Because it is PFI, the winner Paradigm had to set up a telephone company -- it had to deliver a telephone service to the MoD -- so we've supplied it with the complete ground infrastructure it needs for a telephony network. That's a big contract for us, something like £80 million. Galileo is also going to use PFI, so they have brought in the Skynet 5 man to teach the good and bad sides of PFI, as the UK government is seen as having more experience than anyone else in Europe with that.
The MOD was widely criticised for a recent report that seemed to favour technology at the expense of personnel and vehicles. Is this technological focus about keeping up with US investment in cutting-edge systems -- given that experts claim the UK will never go to war alone again?
I am not sure it is as simple as that. There was a presentation given by the US military a few months ago about satellites and their use in the Iraq war. They were comparing the Iraq war with the Gulf War in 1991, and they were saying they used pretty much the same weapons systems and satellites -- there hadn't been that much new equipment in that time. Nevertheless, they had spent billions in the intervening years on something, and that something was systems integration: gluing systems together, making the communications systems interoperatel; with the Marines, with the Navy, with the Airforce, with the Special Forces.
And that's what the MOD is doing now. It's not that they're trying to keep up with the Americans but it's just how you fight a modern war effectively. I interpret that most-recent MOD report as being along those lines. It's about less new, expensive tanks and aircraft, and more about trying to get systems to work together.