Irish mammy co-authors patent for space mission invention by mistake

27 Apr 2016

Delia Hinchey (82), co-author of a US space exploration patent, with her son Professor Mike Hinchey, director of Lero. Images via FusionShooters

The 82-year-old Limerick mother of an Irish consultant to NASA has inspired a new invention that may one day be used in swarms of spacecraft, by complete mistake.

Director of Lero, the Irish software research centre, Prof Mike Hinchey, was at home one day when a wonderful new idea came to him. How it came to him, though, is brilliant. A simple case of opportunistic eavesdropping.

“I overheard my mum on the phone describing a project I was working on,” said Hinchey. “She said that I was researching a system whereby a drone could chase after another one and fix it. I was working on no such thing but then I thought to myself, ‘Hey, that’s not such a bad idea’.”

Hinchey got thinking and adapted the concept, in theory, for use in future spacecraft that will fly in drones. One fails, the rest help out, “not unlike the behaviour of bees”, he said.

“The system is not unlike the behaviour of bees who sacrifice themselves for the sake of the colony.”

Co-author, of course

Delia Hinchey, his mother, is now a co-author on the patent in the US, along with her son, Emil Vassey – who is also a Lero researcher – and AI expert Roy Sterrit.

“Swarm-based missions may be the wave of the future, whereby space exploration is undertaken not by one large spacecraft but by swarming formations of much smaller, cheaper ones,” said Hinchey. “Future space probes that operate in cooperative swarms must self-sacrifice if they begin to fail and risk damaging their neighbours.”

The way the concept works is not unlike refuelling aircraft in the sky, however, it encompasses far more elements key to space travel, such as recharging power provisions via battery, fuel or solar panels. So, mission-critical spacecraft can get topped up by less important vehicles, a bit like a pace setter in a 10,000m race, getting the top racers into shape for the ultimate showdown.

Irish influence on space

Ireland’s influence on space travel might be greater than you realise. For example, Prof Susan McKenna-Lawlor, for example, is a director with Space Technology Ireland Ltd (STIL).

In her time with STIL (she is there since its creation in 1986), McKenna-Lawlor has overseen projects that have built instrumentation launched by ESA, NASA and the Chinese, Indian and Russian space agencies. She is now pioneering Ireland’s first-ever space mission.

The Edgworth-Kuiper belt, which is the large strip of space rocks beyond Pluto on the periphery of our solar system, is named after Westmeath astronomer Kenneth Edgeworth, who suggested its existence back in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, Jocelyn Bell Burnell confirmed the existence of pulsating radio stars, known as pulsars, with the help of a radio telescope that she played an integral part in developing.

Delia Hinchey (82), co-author of a US space exploration patent, with her son Professor Mike Hinchey, director of Lero, via FusionShooters

On this announcement, though, Limerick lady Hinchey said: “It’s all a bit beyond me but I’m delighted I sparked something which might be of value to space exploration in the future.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic