Miles Adcock

‘My job title is the most fantastic in the world’: Miles Adcock, Teledyne e2v

Image credit: Nick Smith

President of space and quantum at Teledyne e2v, Miles Adcock discusses the role of imaging sensors in space exploration, how new technologies help us see underground, and how he forged a successful career after juvenile macular degeneration left him as a registered partially sighted person.

“My job title is probably the most fantastic one in the world,” says Miles Adcock, president of space and quantum at Teledyne e2v, a UK-based company that produces imaging sensors for applications that are literally out of this world.

There’s also more down-to-earth technology being manufactured at the company’s Chelmsford facility in Essex, but “today, one of the largest projects we’re working on is Plato” (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars), part of the European Space Agency (ESA) Cosmic Vision programme.

“We’ll be delivering 126 sensors onto 26 satellites, which will go into space to detect planets that have the potential for hosting Earth-like lifeforms.”

Adcock is keen to point out that this isn’t about looking for the “little green men” of science fiction. In many respects, it’s far more exciting than that: “How it works is by looking at a distant star. As the planets in that solar system pass in front of the star, the sensing technology can detect subtle changes in the frequency and intensity of light emitted from that star. These signals help to infer chemical composition and size of the planet and allow you to assess if you’re looking at a viable planet that could sustain life.”

Adcock goes on to list the Teledyne e2v’s involvement in various Sentinel and Copernicus missions. “It was Sentinel 2 that recently gathered data to assist with the emergency response to Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. Sentinel monitors the health of the Earth, not just in terms of crisis response, but also long-term for issues such as climate change.” Teledyne e2v has also supplied ESA’s Euclid mission that aims to map the geometry of the Universe: “Effectively a time-machine that allows scientists to look back billions of years.”

Despite its modern-sounding name, Teledyne e2v is steeped in British engineering heritage. “Seventy-two-and-a-half years ago, Marconi had developed a thing called a magnetron and opened a factory called the English Electric Valve Company in the Essex countryside, now in the middle of Chelmsford town centre.” At the time, the company was known as ‘EEV’, and after the Marconi era, following a number of phases including a management buy-out, it became e2v. A little less than three years ago the company was acquired by US-based technology business Teledyne, “and hence its name today”.

Adcock sums up the company’s output as “making niche mission-critical components and systems. Operationally we are two businesses. One is RF Power that produces magnetrons for radiotherapy applications and that is about a third of what we do. But I lead the other business, which is space and quantum.”

Adcock says this involves developing photosensitive CCD sensors “that are capable of taking images of space from Earth from many of the world’s greatest telescopes, or taking images of the Earth from space, which means that Teledyne e2v sensors are on many of the Earth observation satellites. We are also involved in taking images of deep space from space.” Once sensors are put into space they simply have to work.

“They undergo an extremely robust qualification programme. If you want to see a single photon that has taken three billion years to reach your satellite, CCD is the only technology that can ‘see’ to that level of sensitivity.”

With the demand for CCD technology on the wane (“a lot of commercial imaging systems are now moving to CMOS”), Adcock says that “for the past 30 or 40 years we’ve been specifically producing sensors for the ‘high science’ markets. So, if a client’s requirements are modest in scale, we’ll find ourselves in competition with others.

"Yet if their requirement is to detect a single photon and find out as much as possible about it by doing deep science on the light they’ve captured, then I would contend that there are no CCD sensors of higher scientific quality than ours. We’re the only provider in Europe, so any ESA mission in the past several decades that has a requirement for science-level visible detection has – on almost all occasions – used sensors developed in the UK.”

By his own admission, space imaging is a “lumpy” market, and “if we were simply a supplier to large institutions such as ESA, Nasa and the Japanese space agency Jaxa, it would be hard to sustain our business. So the discussion I have with customers is: ‘yes, we have every intention of being an enduring presence in the CCD market, but we are investing heavily in complementary technologies such as CMOS – which is great if you want low size, weight and power, but has different optical characteristics – as well as infrared technology. This suite of capabilities creates a more balanced set of business lines.”

Part of the lumpiness comes from the fact that big space programmes can be in the planning phase for years “and ideally we like to be involved in that, because if the sensor is the eyeball – the critical part of the satellite – then the design of the rest of the satellite is influenced by the sensor and vice versa. The worst scenario is when someone comes to us and says: ‘I’ve got a satellite, can you please put a sensor in it’. Anyone that knows anything about systems engineering will know quickly that this is a sub-optimal approach.”

Adcock says, “I’ve been interested in science and engineering from a young age. I was the kind of youngster that on Christmas Day would take his presents apart to see how they worked.” By the time he was in his teens, it was clear to the young Adcock that he would pursue science at degree level. Yet at the age of 16, he was diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration (Stargardt’s disease), the impact of which was the rapid loss of all central vision, leaving him with only peripheral vision in poor resolution and colour. While Adcock good-naturedly admits there’s a level of comic irony in the CEO of a high-tech imaging company being registered as a blind person, he also says it is a disability that can present career obstacles and comes with an obstructive set of problems.

“I can’t read printed material. If someone’s presenting in PowerPoint in a lecture theatre, I can’t see what they’re doing. I certainly can’t drive.” He says that at the start of his career, “it was all about glass. I’d use a magnifying glass to read a cathode-ray tube computer screen.” By the time he was an undergraduate studying physics at Durham University, he was using a telescope in lecture halls. “But it’s actually much easier today with modern technology,” says the 46-year-old engineer, whose career prior to Teledyne e2v includes a stint as managing director at Qinetiq, where he was a core member of the team that transformed the organisation from its civil service heritage into a successful FTSE 250 business.

“Everything talks to me. As soon as something goes into a computer or a phone it’s fine, but it does present real obstacles. However, I was fortunate in that on my first day at university I turned around in the lecture hall and said to the 300 other people: ‘Hello, I’m afraid I’m going to be with you for the next three years with this embarrassing telescope.’ That was the moment when I developed the confidence to be authentically ‘me’ with this disability, rather than shrink away from it. I’m very glad the 18-year-old version of me made that choice.”

After Durham, Adcock went on to take his PhD in adaptive optics from London’s Imperial College. “My view is that once you’re confident in expressing this to other people, then they will really want to help, even if they don’t quite understand what it’s like. What I’ve also found is that I’m good at presenting without notes and that’s quite a powerful thing. It also means I’m good at getting quickly to the point. And that’s a valuable asset.

“In engineering, team structure really matters. There’s a lot of evidence to say that innovation is significantly influenced by the diversity of teams – diversity in all of its various guises. The sort of diversity that somebody with a disability brings is that they might think of situations in a different way. I might not be able to see what other people are looking at, [so] I’ll ask questions or approach that discussion from a direction that is unlikely to be the same as that of other people in the room. I think it’s actually very beneficial in a team to have people who have different ways of interacting with the environment around them.”

‘Innovation is significantly influenced by the diversity of teams – diversity in all of its various guises.’

Dr Miles Adcock

As his job title says, Adcock is also head of Teledyne e2v’s quantum development. “There’s a lot of talk and misunderstanding about what quantum is and what it does.” To get things straight, Adcock says that he’s not, as many suppose when they see his card, involved in quantum computing. “Quantum covers a lot of other things, and it is as simple as the manipulation of the characteristics of atoms in order to make machines that do useful things. In the UK, under Sir Peter Knight, we have a significant quantum programme that’s been running for years and is administrated by Innovate UK. In fact, the UK has spent a similar amount to the whole of Europe and the States in the same time-frame. It’s something the UK is really choosing to stand for, and a good characteristic of that programme is that it is overtly interested in industrial exploitation of quantum technology – not just the academic pursuit of understanding it – and I think that differentiates us from Europe and, to some extent, the US.”

Adcock says the two strands of quantum his company is involved with are quantum clocks and gravity sensing, “both of which have space applications. In the world of quantum clocks, in the UK you can get relatively small clocks for £1,000. Or, you can get large ones for maybe 100 times that, which are used on sea-going military vessels, or in the heart of the financial sector. Yet there’s a gap for clocks that are maybe the size of a pack of cards. These could be fundamentally important to 5G, which has a requirement for phenomenally accurate timing.

“Timing on-board satellites will become increasingly important, particularly post-Brexit with a UK GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) programme emerging. The UK has a domestic desire to develop atomic clocks. We do that in partnership with the National Physical Laboratory. A lot of the intellectual property comes from NPL, while we are the industrialisation partner because we know how to make really hard things. We are now at the stage where we have prototype clocks for which there is no alternative in the UK, perhaps even Europe.”

Gravity sensing is “really cool. The old EEV was about vacuum tubes and that is still critical to quantum technology, because often what you want to do is interrogate the quantum entanglement properties of atoms, and to do that you put them in vacuum tubes, from which you can infer something about the gravity or mass beneath the machine.

“So, if you were to move the machine around a field, for example, you could tell whether there are massive objects or voids in the ground beneath you. Now, you can find universities that can do this, but what we’re interested in is real products that you can use.”

Applications for gravity sensing from the ground include surveying for earthworks: “If you’re building a new city infrastructure project, a major proportion of the cost is spent on trying to determine what’s in the ground beneath you. If you’re a business that regularly digs holes, such as a gas or telecoms company, then a significant proportion of the holes you dig will be in the wrong place. Knowing that the hole you’re going to dig isn’t going to cut across a pipe or a cable is an incredibly valuable prospect.

“In a decade’s time, when there is a shoebox-size device on the back of a BT van, that will save hundreds of millions of pounds.”

Meanwhile in space “we’ve developed a concept demonstrator for a small 6U CubeSat which shows the fundamentals of quantum technology can be deployed into space. The science says that if you could put a gravity sensor of this type in space it could be much smaller because local gravity on Earth is quite high, while in space gravity is much less. This means you can have a relatively small device in space that should be capable of detecting water tables, oil and potentially precursor information relating to earthquakes. These are important things, but it’s early days yet... several years away from being a commercial product.”

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