Welcome to the latest feature in our ‘Day in the life’ series with Richard Hopkins, RF Engineer.

Richard Hopkins - RF Engineer - In-Space Missions

What made you chose this as a career?

I think I was always destined to have a career in science and engineering I did not plan to have this career, it evolved over time.

I have been surrounded by family members from a scientific, medical, or engineering background. My grandfather worked on radar during the war, my father was a civil engineer, my uncle was an electronic engineer, my cousin and mother worked in healthcare.
Even when I was at primary school I was soldering circuits, building and tinkering with things.

At secondary school I was able to design and build more sophisticated things, often with a radio element to them. I enjoyed building receivers and antennas for picking up weather satellite transmissions and the challenge of linking it to a computer. I also put radios on model rockets. You could say it is in the family DNA and I don’t think any of my contemporaries from school days would be at all surprised by my career path. Everything along the way was my choice and steered me toward STEM.

What and where did you study?

After my A levels, I spent 4 years in London at Imperial College where I studied Electrical and Electronic Engineering, it was a very academic course and suited me well, I enjoyed the challenge. The course appealed to me as I liked the detail, complexity and technical rigour that it offered. My grandfather studied here as well in the 1920s so there is a family connection.
After working for five years in a firm designing and building portable radio communications equipment, I decided to go back to university to study for a PhD. During my studies at the University of Surrey, I examined millimetre wave resonators for materials characterisation and developed various theoretical models for planar transmission line technologies. In some ways I did this for selfish reasons, I enjoyed having free reign to follow my own research path rather than the constraints of a work environment. It gave me the opportunity to travel to various international conferences and I worked part time designing some radio frequency integrated circuits.

When this came to an end I was already in touch with Astrium (now Airbus Defence and Space) in Portsmouth who were conducting a joint research project with the university. I was offered a job that was right up my street working on RF design for their satellite payloads. I stayed there for 13 years in various RF domains including leading the development of Ku band receiver and LNA equipment for telecoms missions, the Zephyr high altitude pseudo satellite. Most recently I worked on the ESA Microwave sounder radiometer instrument to be launched on the Metop second Generation weather satellite constellation. After many years, the wheel had turned full circle and I got to work on the space end of the weather satellite link!

After 13 years air Airbus in different divisions, it felt like time for a change and I wanted to have the contrast of working for a smaller company, I saw that ISML were recruiting for an RF engineer and I lived not far away so it was a perfect fit.

What does your job entail?

All of engineering is about taking a concept and turning it into something tangible and practical. My role is to guide this process and match up what the customer is trying to achieve into a physical deliverable item.

My role is as a specialist in the RF domain, so I work with other engineers, our suppliers and the client to develop the communications subsystem architecture for the satellite and to ensure that the platform communication links are compatible with the hosted sensor payload technologies (e.g. radar, electro-optical etc.). I am also responsible for developing in-house RF payloads. It involves design, simulation and optimisation of radio frequency/microwave circuitry and equipment.

I can be spending time liaising with the client, or in the lab working on circuit boards or briefing the suppliers to build a prototype. The whole process is iterative, as the solution needs to be compatible with other parts of the satellite, and trade-offs are needed where incompatibilities occur.

A big part of the job is handling unexpected results and solving problems. Each day is challenging and different.

The whole process is about interacting with all sorts of different people, “No man is an island”, my focus is on the technical side. At the same time I have to be mindful that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” so there are always trade-offs, and knowing where to draw the line is an important skill.

What are the key attributes you need for this job?

Flexibility! I do plan my work but I don’t always know what will happen on any given day. I may need to talk to a customer, be in the lab testing something, at an external test facility, writing a report, or building a simulation model on the computer. You need flexibility to do this job and the skills to adapt to the specific challenges that arise. I have been working in this field for a long time, so have developed a good balance of technical, practical and programmatic skills. I enjoy the diversity and variety of the work.

What do you like about working at ISML?

I like the broad range of people here. Some people are straight from university, and others who are mid-way or further through their careers are very experienced and specialists. I like the large variety of age ranges and the skills they have, it is healthy and a good balance between the really enthusiastic keen people who are willing to solve detailed specific problems and the experienced people who are focussed on larger scale planning and setting up the right environment for delivering a program.

Being a small company you know everybody and everyone wants to help each other and everyone is flexible, we all pitch in and share the work and this encourages people to be more creative and flexible, this is really good and one of the reasons I wanted to join a smaller company.

What is a stand out moment for you at ISML?

That the management team entrust and empower us. There was a situation where we had some urgent questions from a customer. The original person working on this project was not available and I was trusted to help and to answer the questions and I had not been with the company for long. The fact I was trusted to find the solution and answers and that my judgement was respected meant a lot to me.

What do you like about the effects space has for us back on Earth?

The fact that space provides a benefit for all of society from which everyone can gain from. There are many areas where science data are collected by satellites, then made freely available to anyone to process and analyse as they wish. Weather satellite data, Hubble Space telescope images, Mars Rover science measurements and photos, all published freely on the internet.

GPS is another example of a system originally developed for military use but now available for anyone to use and has many diverse applications. As well as navigation, it underpins network infrastructure, financial transaction timing, and has even been used for weather climate monitoring.

It is a vibrant and growing industry with diverse jobs in all sorts of fields. Not only in engineering but also, science research, policy and governance, marketing and services, humanitarian missions, global warming monitoring, disaster relief and so much more.
It is fascinating that so much can be achieved from a vantage point just a few hundred kilometres above Earth and it opens up so many possibilities and allows us to see the whole world as a bigger picture and that is very powerful.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love being active and outdoors - walking, climbing, sea kayaking and paragliding. I also enjoy astrophotography and am fortunate to live in a village with no street lights so have dark skies.
…And tinkering in the study with electronic projects!

Article  by In-Space Missions
Date: 17th May 2022