The Friday Interview: Mike Hinchey, Lero project

9 May 2008

Until recently, Limerick man Mike Hinchey (pictured) was director of the software engineering lab at NASA. He has been appointed as professor of software engineering at University of Limerick (UL) and will co-direct the nationwide Lero project

How did an Irishman end up working at NASA?

I won a Green Card in the lottery in 1992. I began working in New Jersey when I got an email to visit NASA near Washington DC and it was interested in using formal methods for software and hardware.

It complained it lacked certain high-level people with technical skills in this area and wanted to bring in expertise from outside the civil service.

US Congress authorised 12 positions for four years and NASA could pick who it wanted. At the end of the four years, Congress had to vote to extend the position.

My official title was ‘expert’ and it’s a running joke that I was the only ‘expert’ in
federal government.

What kind of things did you work on at NASA?

I ran outreach programmes, which included enabling native Indians to get trained in specific areas of expertise so they could get positions at NASA in order to meet a White House requirement on minorities.

The area I specialised in – formal methods – was about using mathematics to demonstrate systems could work on unmanned missions such as telescopes and satellites.

As director of the software engineering lab at NASA Goddard Flight Centre you researched future space missions using tiny robots. How will this work?

We’re using the concept of a swarm where thousands of devices would co-ordinate and work together on missions, whether it’s fixing a spacecraft or spreading out over a geographic area or asteroid belt. We’re also working on the development of Pico-class spacecraft that would be the size of a laptop.

There is often a 20-minute delay on signals from spacecraft or rovers back to mission control so if these devices can fix the problem on the spot because they have autonomic properties – which means they can self-heal and repair each other – it would ensure better success for a mission.

Is NASA planning on sending these swarms to Mars?

Exactly. Instead of sending just two rover machines, the idea is to send hundreds of tiny robots – on the ground and in the air – that would scatter over a wide distance. If a few get lost, it won’t affect the success of the mission.

Was it a tough decision to return to Ireland to take up a post at UL?

My decision was personal because my family are in Limerick but also professional because the area of autonomic or grid computing is one of the areas Lero is working on, as well as the mathematical foundations of software engineering.

I’ll continue to consult with the US Space programme and will be over and back to the US so I haven’t put my house on the market yet.

Do you think Ireland will one day field a tech giant to the scale of IBM or Microsoft?
It’s hard to know if any of our home-grown companies can become world leaders like those companies but any firm that starts out of Ireland will struggle with such big players.

What’s interesting is that Iona Technologies may be a takeover target, but the real victory is that it has built itself to a stage where it will make a worthwhile takeover target.

The danger with takeover bids is that the resources and brains may be moved elsewhere. We need to keep Ireland attractive and that means developing the resources on the ground here.

By John Kennedy