Dr. Carl Brandon attended Michigan State University, where he designed the extractor coil via computer during the summer following his freshman year for the cyclotron that was being built, and continued to write software for the cyclotron group until graduation. He then worked for IBM for two years, designing their first memory chip with two colleagues. After obtaining his BS and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he has been teaching at Vermont Technical College since 1977. While there, he introduced Pascal and Ada programming courses, and helped set up the Computer Tech and Aeronautical Engineering Technology degrees. Starting in 2004, he started the CubeSat Lab, resulting in the launch of the first university CubeSat from a college in New England.
What are the largest obstacles to innovation in the embedded realm, and how should those challenges be solved?
We built a CubeSat (10 cm cube satellite), launched Nov 19, 2013. We were the first college/university in New England to launch a satellite of any kind. When we started working on the project in 2007, all CubeSat projects had been programmed in C, most using the Texas Instrument MSP430 family of processors. I have been involved with the Ada language since its start in 1980. I wanted to use Ada because of its much higher reliability (all airliners, air traffic control systems, and European high speed trains use it). We had to develop some of our own software tools for the project, since they were not readily available. We were successful in doing this. We also wanted to use the SPARK Toolset for static analysis of our code. Together, SPARK/Ada decreases the chance of software error by a factor of 100. When the tools are not available, you have to roll your own.
How does you stay on the leading edge of innovation, rather than just following the embedded crowd?
I read as much as I can about what is going on in the field, go to conferences in both the satellite world, and the Ada software world, thus I get a cross-discipline view of technology. I find this very valuable, and it enables me to create unique solutions based on my knowledge of multiple fields. If you just follows one area of technology, you will not be as likely to develop innovative solutions to your technical problems.
How do you recognize when a new technology or application is one your company should invest/innovate in, versus a technology that will experience fast burnout?
I take a multi-disciplinary approach when looking at technologies, and this wider view makes it easier to see which technologies are having traction in various fields, and this enables a better choice of new technologies to explore for our use in CubeSats. I do this by attending multiple conferences, visiting companies, universities, and NASA facilities to hear about and talk to other users of technology to better understand what is likely to go forward and what will not.
In the next 5 years, which embedded technologies, applications, markets, and geographic areas present the most interesting opportunities?
In our field, we are looking at expanding to the "geographic" areas of going further from the Earth. Our next CubeSat project will be a triple CubeSat (10 cm x 10 cm x 30 cm) with an ion drive, full 3-axis attitude control, and improved sensor and computational abilities. We would test this in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) where launches are much more readily available. We would test all the systems in LEO including using the ion to change the orbit several times. This would be followed up with a very similar or identical CubeSat that would get a geostationary transfer ellipse launch (with a communication satellite). We would then use the ion drive to expand the orbit ellipse until we reach L1 (the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 1), about 3/4 of the way to the Moon, and flip the orbit to orbiting the Moon, then use the ion drive to reduce the ellipse to an orbit close to the Moon to take scientific observations for several months. This same CubeSat would have enough delta-v (velocity increase) to leave the lunar orbit and go to Mars.