From spacesuit design to wildlife tracking, Iota Technology is no stranger to open innovation challenges. But MagQuest presents its own unique tests — not least the four other teams also competing in the invitation-only Phase 3. There’s a lot at stake in the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s $2.1 million global competition, which seeks to advance how we measure Earth’s magnetic field for the World Magnetic Model (WMM).

Iota Technology’s CubeSat solution features a 3D magnetometer array that could provide greater precision and accuracy than a comparable fluxgate magnetometer. Whether or not it’s possible to use a satellite so small without affecting the quality of the data collected, however, is just one of several questions they will have to answer by September.

We spoke with Iota Technology’s Hugo Shelley about participating in open innovation challenges, working with small satellites, and creating sustainable methods of geomagnetic data collection.

You have extensive experience competing in open innovation challenges. What inspired you to enter MagQuest, and how has it been different from your past work?
Despite having made use of the WMM several times over the last few years, I was unaware of how the data was collected or the technical achievements that have made this model possible! MagQuest was a unique opportunity to understand more about the geomagnetic field in low Earth orbit, and to apply my field of research (low-power sensing) to an environment that’s incredibly challenging and undeniably beautiful. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with my core engineering team on various NASA challenges. MagQuest has been an opportunity to scale up this team, adding specialist support where needed.

Iota Technology is not the only Phase 3 team utilizing CubeSats. Why did you home in on this approach, and what makes your solution for geomagnetic data collection innovative?
Our solution is focused on sustainability, as smaller satellites have lower launch costs and a reduced environmental footprint. Geomagnetic monitoring satellites have historically been the size of dining tables — we’re shrinking ours to the size of a coffee pot. However, reducing size and mass in this way can make it difficult to provide a magnetically clean environment for the sensor. The technology we developed allows us to do this without affecting the quality of the geomagnetic data that we’re capturing — a world-first for a satellite of this size.

Success in this area would be a game-changer not only in terms of sustainability, but also in terms of the kind of data that can be collected. Nanosatellites have unique advantages over their larger siblings because they are capable of forming low-cost constellations that allow us to take simultaneous measurements at many different points in space.

In September, you will present your refined solution to the judging panel. What has your team already tackled to advance your solution? What are your priorities during Phase 3 as you iterate your design and testing plan?
While the previous phase of the competition required a lot of cross-disciplinary work, we’ve now divided into several subteams to focus on the different elements of the design. With the first draft already behind us, the next few months involve quantifying the performance of our design through testing and simulation. This will help us build up a more detailed picture of how our satellite will perform in orbit and verify that we can meet the demanding standards of the WMM. The work is an interesting mix of physical prototyping and theory, with the added pressure of the competition deadline — September doesn’t seem very far away!

What happens next

Over the next month, all five teams will continue iterating and refining their designs and testing plans for data collection methodologies. They will present their final submissions to the judging panel in September.

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