SKA a game changer for African tech

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is more than a major feather in SA’s scientific cap – it could also act as a significant catalyst for science, technology and engineering business opportunities, jobs and innovation.

This is according to Simon Ratcliffe, technical lead for scientific computing at the SKA office in Cape Town, who says SKA also has the potential to put Africa firmly on the map as a world Big Data and analytics hub.

The multi-billion rand SKA, to be hosted in South Africa and Australia, will extend into eight African countries and will be the world’s biggest telescope.

It is also one of the biggest-ever scientific projects and multinational collaborations in the name of science. The project has already entered its first phase, with radio astronomy scientists and engineers finalising its design, with construction to start in 2016.

The radio telescope should be operationally mature by 2020.

With thousands of linked radio wave receptors in Australia and in Southern Africa, the SKA radio telescope will constantly scan space and feed the data to astronomers around the world.

The amounts of data being collected and transmitted will be staggering – the SKA says the data collected by the SKA array in a single day would take nearly two million years to play back on an iPod.

This means the project requires supercomputing power and Big Data management and analytics capabilities on an unprecedented scale. SKA is working with the world’s most significant ICT powerhouses – such as IBM – on the project.

One aspect of the project will see ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and IBM collaborating to research extremely fast, but low-power exascale computer systems, data transport and storage processes, and streaming analytics that will be required to read, store and analyse all the raw data that will be collected daily.

The SKA project will also have unprecedented data connectivity needs.

Meeting the advanced technological and engineering needs of this project will result in significant local skills development, revolutionise science and technology research and enable innovative new businesses and employment in the science, technology and engineering fields, Ratcliffe says.

“Aside from the benefits to African science, Big Data capabilities could be our biggest spin-off from the SKA project,” said Ratcliffe.

“The innovations, skills development and commercial potential emerging as a result of the project are huge. The potential is not just academic – we develop the taxpayer-funded intellectual property to a point where it’s ready to become commercialised and benefit the economy. We will increasingly be an incubator of science and technology innovation.”

Ratcliffe says the human capital development is already taking place as a result of the SKA project, with bursaries and scholarships already being granted to allow students to learn the necessary cutting edge science, technology, maths and engineering skills to support the project.

“We have a business development unit looking at making the innovations already developed for the SKA viable as commercial public space entities. Because the SKA is a long term project over decades, its impact will increase,” said Ratcliffe.

“Going forward, there will be a strong drive to leverage the SKA as a spearhead for other programmes – including next generation high performance computing challenges and Big Data challenges. Throughout Africa, we now have an extraordinary opportunity to become an important global player in Big Data processing innovation,” he said.

SKA says that, since 2005, the African SKA Human Capital Development Programme has awarded close to 400 grants for studies in astronomy and engineering from undergraduate to post-doctoral level, while also investing in training programmes for technicians.

Astronomy courses are being rolled out in other African countries, including Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius. Career opportunities will increase substantially and new business opportunities will emerge.

Ratcliffe says the project has already changed the world’s view of SA’s scientific capability. Now it also presents the potential to spark virtually overnight growth in SA’s science, research, technology, ICT and engineering industries.

“This project is a once in a lifetime combination of science and engineering in SA – we won’t see the likes of it ever again. It’s tremendously exciting and an opportunity to change the narrative for SA,” said Ratcliffe.

By Simon Ratcliffe

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SKA a game changer for African tech