Fault-finding across sectors

13 September 2023

Jack Heron, a senior fellow working on R&D for the proposed Future Circular Collider at CERN, reflects on his past experience in the defence sector.

Jack Heron
Colliding worlds Jack Heron is part of the machine protection and electrical integrity group in CERN’s technology department. He works on the “availability challenge” for the FCC. Credit: C Obermair

Jack Heron always liked the idea of being an inventor. After completing a master’s in electronics engineering at Durham University, he spent a year in Bangalore, India as part of the “Engineers Without Borders” programme, where he designed solar-powered poverty-alleviation solutions in unelectrified slums. This sparked an interest in renewable energy, and he completed a PhD on smart grid techniques in 2020. With a passion for advanced technology and engineering at the peak of performance, he then joined the “digital twin” R&D programme of international defence company Babcock, dedicated to fault-prediction for defence assets in land, sea and air.

“The military is extremely interested in autonomous vehicles,” explains Jack. “But removing the driver from, say, a fleet of tanks, increases the number of breakdowns: many maintenance checks are triggered by the driver noticing, for example, a ‘funny noise on start-up’, or ‘a smell of oil in the cabin’.” Jack worked on trying to replicate this intuition by using very early signs in sensor signals. Such a capability permits high confidence in mission success, he adds. “It also ensures that during a mission, if circumstances change, dynamic asset information is available for reconfiguration.”

Working in defence was “exciting and fast- paced” and enabled Jack to see his research put to practical use – he got to drive a tank and attend firing tests on a naval frigate. “It’s especially interesting because the world of defence is something most people don’t have visibility on. Modern warfare is constantly evolving based on technology, but also politics and current affairs, and being on the cusp of that is really fascinating.” It also left him with a wealth of transferrable skills: “Defence is a high-performance world where product failure is not an option. This is hardcoded into the organisation from the bottom up.”

Back to his roots

Growing up in Geneva, CERN always had a mythical status for Jack as the epitome of science and exploration. In 2022 he applied for a senior fellowship. “Just getting interviewed for this fellowship was a huge moment for me,” he says. “I was lucky enough to get interviewed in person, and when I arrived I got a visitor pass with the CERN-logo lanyards attached. Even if I didn’t get the job I was going to frame it, just to remember being interviewed at CERN!”

I love the idea of working on the frontiers of science and human understanding

Jack now works on the “availability challenge” for the proposed Future Circular Collider FCC-ee. Availability is the percentage of scheduled physics days the machine is able to deliver beam, (i.e. is not down for repair). To meet physics goals, this must be 80%. The LHC – the world’s largest and most complex accelerator, but still a factor three smaller and simpler than the FCC – had an availability of 77% during Run 2. “Modern-day energy-frontier particle colliders aren’t built to the availabilities we would need to succeed with the FCC, and that’s without considering  additional technical challenges,” notes Jack. His research aims to break down this problem system by system and find solutions, beginning with the radio frequency (RF). 

On the back of an envelope, he says, the statistics are a concern: “The LHC has 16 superconducting RF cavities, which trip about once every five days. If we scale this up to FCC-ee numbers (136 cavities for the Z-pole energy mode and 1352 for the tt threshold), this becomes problematic. Orders of magnitude greater reliability is required, and that itself is a defining technical challenge.

Jack’s background in defence prepared him well for this task: “Both are systems that cannot afford to fail, and therefore have extremely tight reliability requirements. One hour of down time in the LHC is extremely costly, and the FCC will be no different.”

Mirroring what he did at Babcock, one solution could be fault prediction. Others are robot maintenance, and various hardware solutions to make the RF circuit more reliable. “Generally speaking, I love the idea of working on the frontiers of science and human understanding. I find this exploration extremely exciting, and I’m delighted to be a part of it.”

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