Sponsored by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the MagQuest challenge aims to accelerate technologies to measure Earth’s ever-shifting magnetic field, and inform the next version of the World Magnetic Model. Although you may never have heard of the WMM, it powers the navigation systems in commercial airlines and your smartphone, among other things. In this series, HeroX introduces the three teams moving to the current phase of the challenge.
Hugo Shelley is no stranger to open innovation challenges. He’s won at least half a dozen challenges on the HeroX platform alone, including several sponsored by NASA, earning him the accolade NASA Labs Star Solver.
Shelley is especially attracted to challenges that have the potential to move beyond the idea stage and be developed into a usable technology with real-world applications. That’s a major appeal of MagQuest. Governments and companies that provide navigation systems to airlines and shipping vessels have a real need for the technologies that the teams are creating, which will measure the Earth’s ever-shifting magnetic field. Furthermore, the rules of the challenge set forth by the sponsor, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, allow the innovators to maintain their intellectual property and, if successful, sell the data they collect about Earth’s magnetic field.
Now in its fourth phase, and with the three teams mere months away from testing their technologies with NASA, MagQuest demands most of Shelley’s attention. But his day job previously revolved around innovation, too. As the founder of the London-based Iota Technology, Shelley worked as an innovation consultant focused on what he describes as “quietly technical products.” He helped companies apply new technologies to solve problems, working on a diverse array of products including educational robots and high-efficiency nanosatellite antennae.
His approach to that work, and to MagQuest, both have roots in an even earlier endeavor: magic. As a newly minted graduate of University of Oxford, where he studied physics and philosophy, Shelley started out designing electronic illusions for magicians.
“Immersing myself in the world of magic and theater helped to define my attitude towards technology as something that should invisibly augment our experience of the world, rather than being desirable in its own right,” says Shelley.
When you consider his assignments here to create the “impossible” within a set period of time, it’s not all that different from the pursuit of innovation challenges.
“Even though stage illusions are a world away from geomagnetic data collection, in both situations, you’re forced to think outside of the box in order to find a method that works,” he says.
Shelley’s proposed technology for MagQuest is similar to the technology currently used to measure Earth’s magnetic fields — except dramatically smaller, lighter and lower power. The whole device — satellite and magnetometer — fits within a 30x10x10 centimeter cubesat (a size commonly referred to as 3U) and can be built with inexpensive, off-the-shelf materials. If it can do the job as intended, it will be significantly cheaper than the existing technology.
As MagQuest has evolved, Shelley has expanded his team significantly, pulling in experts and innovators from all across Europe and North America — many of whom have never met in person. He is working with individuals in Belgium, France, Germany, the UK, and the U.S, including team members from Oxford Space Systems, AAC Clyde Space and Arsec, as well as freelancers. He’s also gained the support of the ESA Business Incubation Centre UK, which provides lab space and expertise as Iota evolves from a small start-up to an international collaboration.
“Many unsolved technical challenges exist because they require an unusual blend of specialist knowledge that doesn't often exist in one place,” says Shelley. “Innovation challenges have been a chance for me to build up a network of creative and talented individuals who are passionate about the application of technology to global problems.”
Iota Technology’s headcount makes it the smallest team still participating in MagQuest, although with all of its partner organizations and contractors, its team may have the largest geographic footprint.
“The part of our work I’m most proud of, is that all team members, regardless of the subsystem they are working on, are fully engaged with the mission goals and have gone above and beyond to ensure that we can meet them,” he says.
Over the coming months, Shelley and team Iota’s partners will be working feverishly to prepare their proposed magnetometer to be independently tested at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. While millions of dollars are at stake in the MagQuest competition, and potentially millions more in the sale of data collected by a successful technology, the project promises to yield other, perhaps immeasurable, rewards.
“Whether designing theatrical dream worlds or nanosatellite payloads, I’ve always found myself drawn to technology that allows us to see the world in new ways,” says Shelley. “Maybe that’s what magic really is.”
Already a winner of several innovation challenges, founder of Iota Technology Hugo Shelley hopes to see his proposal for MagQuest fully developed and launched to space.
Iota Technology proposes a very small, lightweight, and low-power satellite to collect data about the Earth’s magnetic field for the MagQuest challenge.