Interview Prof. Björn Ottersten, Director of SnT

SnT is internationally recognised for its research in fields like information security, robotics and machine learning. What space-related work are you also doing?

Our work here at SnT rests on three pillars. First, there’s education, with the Interdisciplinary Space Masters that we launched last year, together with the Luxembourg Space Agency and the Ministry of Economy.

Then we have the research pillar, which is about building competencies in specific areas. The science we're doing here involves things like information technology, software engineering and security. What stands out is the interdisciplinary character of our space-related work: our scientists stay at the forefront of innovation by combining their expertise in machine learning, communications, computer vision and automation in their research.

And then we have the tech transfer activity pillar, which enables us to bring our research outcomes from the lab to the marketplace and wider society. The link between research and this tech transfer activity is very important to us Because Luxembourg is small, it’s obvious that we will not be able to cover everything around space technologies. So we have to be focused.

(--> Watch the video interview with Prof. Tonie Van Dam about GPS, ground displacement research and Yellowstone here)

So the question must be, what do you focus on?

Well, our strategy has been very much to link our research agenda to the government strategy. We use our strategic research partners - private companies, and in some cases public institutions - as a way of seeing what can be successfully done in Luxembourg.

So, as an example, satellite communications is a big activity here. To date, our scientists have worked on 38 space-related projects funded by the European Space Agency and the European Commission.  We have close to 60 people working on this.  It’s the biggest academic research team in Europe. And perhaps among the largest in the world. (--> Watch the video interview with Prof. Symeon Chatzinotas about research in satellite communications here)

This is due to the fact that we have SES as a research partner. They enable us to tap into this research area with such focus.  The fact that we have a strong partner means that, where we see a need, we can align our research agenda so that the technologies we develop eventually find their way into the standards and commercial use.

So you look to support the commercial space sector?

As the space sector develops, we see companies coming to Luxembourg and setting up operations. Our goal is to be part of the ecosystem here to make them prosper.

So if you think in terms of topics, there’s a communications aspect, because anything we do in space is going to require a communication infrastructure. Of course, right now what we do is very much Earth-centric, so it's communication around the Earth. But developing communication networks that go beyond Earth is something we're looking at too.

Another important topic is automation. Anything we do in space is going to require a much higher degree of automation. We have strong activities in robotics and automation, which will be a solid advantage to those companies looking at doing satellite maintenance, in-orbit refueling and so on. That's also an area where you need very advanced automation and robotics.

Our latest lab facilities provide a great testing environment for our research activities, another added value for the companies collaborating on projects with us. We have the Lunalab, for example, which emulates the surfaces of the moon, where we can actually do experiments and training.

(--> Watch the video interview with Prof. Miguel Mendez about the Lunalab here)

Are you building any robots?

We are not going down the path of developing devices and hardware. There are others that are better at doing this - the sensors, the propulsion systems and so on. That's a huge area.

Our focus is on everything that has to do with the data, the algorithms and the software. That's where we have our expertise and where we can add value.

This makes sense for a small country like Luxembourg - to target research areas that don't need huge infrastructure investments.

The requirements in space systems for software are much higher than they are normally. I mean, you cannot afford to fail. That's why we call it mission critical software. We have two large software engineering teams with expertise in this area.

We also want to do further development on remote sensing around processing data – large amounts of data. Of course, at first, this is about services that are Earth-centric: Earth observation, and building services on that. But that same technology can be used for looking beyond Earth. We think that's one of the critical technologies that have to be developed.

How long have you been based in Luxembourg?

I came to Luxembourg from Stockholm in 2009, to launch SnT.

I was attracted to Luxembourg by the young university, the focus on research, and the international dimension of the work here. Being able to set something up from scratch, that was also very attractive.

So the move from Sweden to Luxembourg wasn’t too hard ?

No, not at all. If you go back to 2009, this was the beginning of the financial crisis.

This was unfortunate, but for us it was an opportunity to attract some very strong and experienced researchers.

While many universities were tightening their budgets and downsizing, we were expanding. So, that was a great opportunity. It was the right time to launch, in that sense.

Video interview Prof. Dr. Björn Ottersten

Where had you been before that?

Before that, I did my graduate work in the US at Stanford University, in electrical engineering. I was working on signal processing and wireless communications. That's my own research field.

Before returning to Europe, I started a company in Silicon Valley. This is almost 30 years ago now. But this gave me an excuse also to keep in contact with California.

Most of my career has been at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, where I launched a chair in signal processing and worked a lot with the development of wireless communication standards, 3G, 4G and 5G, together with Ericsson, Nokia, Siemens.

With your background in wireless communication, did you expect that space would become important to SnT?

SES became one of our very first partners when we set up SnT. So, that part I was well aware of.

Of course at that time, I don't think anybody was aware of what would happen around the space resources initiative and so on. But I knew SES had a strong position in Luxembourg.

But really, the common denominator of all the areas we work on is data –  it’s about algorithms, AI, machine learning, data, software and so on.

Those are technologies we’re quite fluent in already. But now, together with our partners, we want to apply them to the space industry.

A good example of this is our partnership with Lift Me Off (LMO), where we signed an agreement earlier this year. They are involved in the maintenance and servicing of space craft. If you're going to maneuver in space, you need to be able to do so through camera and vision systems. That's the specific project we're doing with LMO.

How does a partnership between a university and a company work. With SES, for example?

Well, SES is a large company, but they don't really have an in-house R&D department. That's extremely costly. So, you could say we function a bit like an outsourced R&D.

Our research is long term in nature and high risk. It’s often publicly funded - by the university, by the FNR, by some European sources and so on.

Scientifically, it's important to us that we're excellent. We must be leaders in the field, so our results are published in the best venues internationally.

Then the companies make use of the research?

Well, in most academic environments, people will write the paper, publish the paper and move on to the next topic. But here, we are much more ambitious.

We want to publish the paper, yes, that's important to us. But also we want to take the results, the interesting results, and go into validation.

To test the research in practice? That must be challenging.

To do validation today in our area, you need to work with practitioners that have access to real data. Which is not always publicly available. And real systems.

The most complex systems that you see today are commercial systems. And you cannot access and work with them unless you form a close partnership.

So for us, there's a value in getting access to data and systems. And for the partner, we believe it's valuable to get access to our research expertise.

We recruit internationally, so we have over 60 nationalities. And we can attract very good people.

We also have PhD candidates who spend time in department premises. This creates a really tight link. Working with us, our partners can sort of direct us into problems which are relevant for them. So it's really a win-win situation for both sides.

You’re attracting a lot of talent to Luxembourg

Access to talent is really important. As I mentioned, we hire globally, but something like 85% of our people here are on time-limited contracts. This is intentional - we want them to go out and work in Luxembourg when they leave us.

And do they?

Yes, more than 40% stay in Luxembourg.

We track every single one of our alumni. To date, around 280 people have left us at the end of their contract. All of them with a PhD. Over 40% take their first employment in Luxembourg. And two thirds of them go into the private sector.

You also set up the Interdisciplinary Space Master degree. How is that program coming along? It's now in its first year?

The first two semesters have been completed. We have some 15 students and it has gone very well.

Of course, the whole year has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. This has been very challenging because the purpose with the program was to have it very project-based and hands-on. We have invested in several laboratories.

In the Lunalab students can do experiments and solve tasks –  everything from navigating a rover to controlling it.

We have a Zero Gravity lab for emulating robots in space.

We have a Communications and Networking lab, where they can implement and test different types of communication protocols.

We have a Concurrent Design Facility, where you can bring different experts together around the table to address mission design. This is very complex, because there are many different technologies that come into play.

And finally, we also have a Cubesat lab.

How would you like to see SnT evolve over the coming years?

Well, there are two parts to this. When I was at Stanford – a renowned world-class university – I noticed they cared a lot about having a regional impact. It's something they take seriously. For me, it's also very important to develop SnT in the context of Luxembourg.

What excites me is to do world-class research that's recognised internationally, but it must have impact. That impact, it doesn't have to be just in Luxembourg, but it's very natural that we start here.

For me, what I'd like to see in the coming years is that our impact includes attracting more private R&D investment into the country.

Is private R&D on the rise?

Actually it's been decreasing, the ratio of private investment, which worries me.

I believe that research is key to the prosperity of our future in Western Europe. If we don't invest in knowledge-intensive activities, we will become a museum for tourists. So we need to invest.

And I think in Luxembourg we are well aware of this, so public investment in R&D has increased. But, the private has not followed.

I would like to see our investments in SnT help to increase private investment, so we attract research labs here.

There are opportunities in private research investment, aren’t there?

We’ve been working with Thales, an aerospace company, for many years through ESA projects. They announced their intention to put their R&D activity in Luxembourg and have been visiting frequently.

The profile they chose is very much aligned to ours. And this is because they want to see a synergy. So this to me is a success factor.

But I'd like to see others here too. I'd like to have Airbus here, I'd like to have Space X here with R&D activities. This is my vision. But to do that, we need to also be internationally competitive. The research that we do has to be at the top level, internationally.

Is it sometimes hard for you to convince international partners of the expertise that exists here?

It depends on the areas. For example, Luxembourg’s finance sector is well known internationally.

In fact, one of our areas that's growing the quickest is FinTech. And when you talk to the people in the financial sector, they are very well aware of Luxembourg.

We now have partnerships with PayPal, but also with Clearstream, BNP Paribas, CSSF, the Luxembourg stock exchange and many more leading companies and institutions in the financial sector. So here, I would say, we’ve successfully established our research leadership.

We'd like to do the same with space, but it's tougher. And we're going to have to work harder.

We have to have patience too, because this isn’t going to happen overnight. It requires thinking 10 to 20 years ahead.

Are there any bridges that can be built between technologies developed for space and finance, or are these worlds too different?

This is the nice thing, there are lots of commonalities.

So, for example, we have teams that work both on FinTech and on mission critical software. In communications, we have work in 5G and in space communications, because between these applications there are commonalities.

But it's never as simple as just taking the technology and applying it to a certain area. It always has to be adapted. It always needs specific research. You need this domain-specific expertise and for that you must work with the practitioners.

Even in scientific circles this is not well understood - how to go from a first basic idea to validation and verification in real systems, with real data. You have to have a strategy to do that.

By the way, this does not mean that we’re only doing applied research here. We’re not. The partnership activity is 25% of our turnover.

Most of our projects are long term, high risk. And that's what I think is a bit unique here - we're doing both. And this doesn’t just flow one way, from long term research into application. There’s a feedback loop too, it’s a very fruitful relationship.

Is there anything you would particularly love to see happen in the coming decade or two?

Well, it would be fantastic to see a mission launched to the moon or beyond, where we have developed part of the solution. Now that would be exciting!

We have already done that around Earth, in satellite systems and so on.

But it would be nice to be involved in a mission beyond Earth, where we have been part of it from the start. I’d like to be able to say that we have software running, collecting data from our systems – in space!

I think this is feasible, but it depends not only on us. It needs the whole ecosystem being developed here, in Luxembourg.

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