CPSX Spotlight: PhD Candidate Raymond Francis
Next up in the CPSX Spotlight is PhD Candidate, Raymond Francis.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a doctoral student in Electrical and Computer Engineering, specializing in robotic technologies for planetary exploration, but that’s a fairly new field for me. I started off with an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering, which included a variety of co-op placements in industry. I later completed a master’s degree in Space Science, specializing in space mission design. My thesis explored the propagation of aircraft transponder signals through the Earth’s atmosphere to space, and investigated the types of satellite mission that would be needed to detect these for air traffic monitoring and control.
I also worked for a time at the European Space Agency, developing science experiments for the Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station; the first of these, GEOFLOW, was my first work in support of planetary science, and is now on its second flight to the ISS.
Outside of the space sector, I work as a flying instructor for the Air Cadet program; I’ve done that weekends and summers for eleven years now.
2. What is your current research?
I’m working on new robotic vision systems for planetary exploration. These are technologies and processing techniques that allow computerized sensor systems to autonomously detect, analyze, or interpret features of interest in imagery of their environment. This is useful for making smart instruments and robots, but also for assisting humans on Earth to understand and interpret science data. You can use similar strategies and techniques to investigate a variety of environments; on the one hand I’m working on computer systems that can automatically differentiate between types of rock, on the other I’m training computer systems to recognize clouds in pictures of the sky.
That cloud-tracking work is of particular interest for Mars exploration. I’m working on an algorithm to automatically process sequences of images of the martian sky, and track the motion of the clouds that sometimes form, as a way of measuring the wind at altitude. Together with my colleague John Moores, I’ll be taking part in the Mars Science Laboratory mission, using the rover’s cameras to gather the needed images to do these studies. Right now I’m developing the system using photos John obtained during the Phoenix lander mission a few years ago.
This work in making smarter robotic systems takes place in the context of expanding our capability to explore space, and evolving the relationships between human and robotic exploration. So I’ve also taken part in work to develop new ways of organizing and operating space missions, and to test these strategies, along with imaging systems and other instruments, in planetary-analogue environments on Earth. CPSX has led a series of lunar exploration analogue missions, and I’ve been involved in the mission design, then in Mission Control or as an ‘Astronaut’ for each of the deployments. The experience I gained in exploring, interpreting, and analyzing sites and scenes, and in applying imaging systems to that task, has been very helpful for my work in machine vision.
3. What first inspired you to study planetary science?
I’ve been interested in space – both astronomy and astronautics – since childhood. The idea of exploring new worlds is very compelling, and so is the challenge of making it work. Building spacecraft is hard, and you need to have both a diversity of knowledge and skills and a dedication to do things right to pull it off. Still, you can take part in space projects, and even planetary missions, without being a planetary scientist. Engineers have an important role, too – but many engineers know very well how to design instruments and spacecraft without understanding the things these will be used to study.
It’s better, I think, to understand both sides of this. You can’t build a space mission without engineering, but you don’t need a science mission if there’s no science. The science is also interesting in its own right, but understanding the science makes you a better engineer.
4. What attracted you to Western and to the CPSX?
CPSX has a major graduate program in planetary science – the biggest in Canada – with a variety of research areas. It also has key connections to industry and to government, and these can be very valuable for engineering work. These, and the variety of interesting projects underway, promised a variety of interesting opportunities during my studies. Most importantly, though, was the interface between science and engineering. Having a serious and substantial planetary science group working together with a well-respected engineering faculty enables the kind of interdisciplinary development I was hoping to do.
I’m co-supervised by Dr. Ken McIsaac, in engineering, and Dr. Gordon Osinski, in planetary science. In addition to the usual degree requirements for a doctorate in engineering, I also follow most elements of the planetary science program. This kind of close co-operation and dual relationship to science and engineering is very powerful, but there are few institutions that enable this kind of work. It allows me to learn a great deal more than I would by studying engineering in isolation from planetary science, and the chance to do my degree this way was a main reason that I chose CPSX.
5. What advice would you give an undergraduate or graduate student interested in planetary science as a career?
Whether on the science or engineering side, I’d say that a useful strategy is to pick something to become very good at, but not to ignore the rest of the universe. Scientists who understand engineering are better equipped to take part in space missions; engineers who understand the relevant science are better able to design space systems. The ability to understand the workings of your own field very well, but also to interface with those that it connects with, is very powerful.
6. What are some of the challenges and rewards of studying planetary science?
There’s a reason scientists and engineers often form separate communities – the two disciplines have different ways of approaching problems, different priorities, and different ways of expressing their work. Learning to cross those boundaries is important, and sometimes challenging.
As an example, developing systems to automate part of the field geology process requires you to understand and, in some sense, reverse-engineer the practice of field geology. That’s as much an art as a science, and discovering, connecting, and understanding all the steps in, say, exploring an impact crater is a difficult process that bears directly on the task of choosing how to best augment it with autonomous vision systems.
But things worth doing are rarely easy, and it’s very rewarding to learn these things, and to see the work paying off in new systems that do what you wanted them to do. It’s also very exciting to be able to take part in missions like MSL, and in the exploration of sites on Earth that are Mars- and Moon-like, and still poorly understood.
7. What’s next once you finish your degree?
There are all kinds of possibilities, and we’ll see what opportunities are in reach when the time comes. What I want to do is be in a position to make space missions happen. There are a lot of ways to do that. A real possibility is moving to industry to work in technology or mission development, but positions with a space agency or in academia could also be in play.
8. What do you do for fun?
Flying, both with the Air Cadet program and on my own, is a main hobby. I spend a lot of time reading in a variety of media, and writing now and then. I make some time for athletics and the outdoors, and I’ve also been known to fiddle with Lego bricks on occasion.
Thank you, Raymond!
The CPSX Spotlight features interviews with CPSX faculty, research scientists, post-docs, and graduate students.