This award-winning engineer is working on a permanent, battery-powered and high-speed satellite communication terminal to help emergency services reach bushfire and flood-affected regions.
Severe weather events in the last few years have brought NSW and Australia’s connectivity challenge to the fore.
Many affected regions experienced power outages, and some recovery efforts in NSW and Queensland were compromised due to electricity outages.
Karu Esselle, Engineers Australia’s 2022 Sydney Professional Engineer of the Year, says connectivity disruptions are often caused by regional and rural Australia relying on a couple of satellites with limited capacity.
“The digital divide in NSW has been well-acknowledged,” says Esselle. “Major cities have relatively good internet connectivity, but the situation in remote and regional areas is often very different. If floods or bushfires cut off the power lines, communities are often left without support.”
Together with satellite operator One Web in the UK and in collaboration with Australian companies Innovations for Humanity and Benelec, Esselle and his team at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) are now working on a $1.1 million project to improve connectivity outside urban areas.
Although it will first be demonstrated for the One Web satellite network, this technology can be modified in the future to work with any other low- or medium-earth-orbit satellite constellation.
The project, which recently received funding from the NSW Government, is designed to develop communication terminals for remote areas.
“Our aim is to require as little power as possible and instead use renewable energy – battery or solar or a combination of both – so that, in the event of a natural disaster, people who don’t have power can rely on our satellites. It will help emergency services provide critical support to these communities.”
Shaping Australia’s defence system
As an international leader in engineering innovations, Esselle has spearheaded novel developments in space and defence.
His team was responsible for designing the main antenna system for Audacy Zero – the world’s first Ka-band CubeSat spacecraft, which was launched to space in December 2018. The Ka-band radio was designed for high data speed throughout the system for spacecraft connectivity.
This achievement contributed to him being awarded the Excellence Award at the 2022 Australian Space Awards.
In the area of defence, he received the Best of the Winners Defence Connect Excellence Award in 2021 at the Australian Defence Industry Awards.
For the past few years, Esselle has been focusing on developing sovereign defence technology In Australia.
“Our defence system largely relies on imported technology. If something goes wrong, we have to call on an international partner to come and fix it,” says Esselle.
“If we develop the complete system here then we know exactly how it functions. Increasing Australia’s defence capability is a really significant long-term development.”
Inspiring the next generation
A passionate teacher and mentor, Esselle supervises undergraduate and postgraduate students in his capacity as Distinguished Professor of Electromagnetic & Antenna Engineering at UTS.
“The aim is to develop engineers who can handle challenges at the highest level of industry. Engineering is fundamental to solving a lot of global challenges. If you want to make an impact on climate change, you can work on developing software to reduce emissions,” says Esselle.
“In medical fields, engineers can work on developing medical instruments to improve surgical outcomes and patient care.”
But he’s resolute in his opinion that students considering an engineering degree need to keep an open mind.
“I don’t encourage any one particular area of specialisation because government and industry priorities can quickly change. Right now, space is an exciting area and receiving a lot of investment in Australia. But a good engineer would be ready and enthusiastic to work in any area, and have the skills to do so.”
Video: Karu Esselle accepts Engineers Australia’s 2022 Sydney Professional Engineer of the Year Award.