From its base in Dublin’s NovaUCD, OCE is making robust operating systems and integrated circuits for low-orbit satellites launched by the likes of the ESA.
The commercial space industry has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years and is expected to reach about $1trn in annual revenue by 2040. And Ireland is looking to gain a share in this market.
Last November, the Government announced a €125m commitment to the European Space Agency (ESA) over the next five years to further support the expansion of Ireland’s growing space industry. Meanwhile, Ireland is getting ready to launch its first satellite, EIRSAT-1, later this year.
So, the time is ripe for Irish businesses in the space-tech sector to really take off, and OCE Technology is doing exactly that. Based in NovaUCD, OCE is one of several Irish start-ups playing a role in putting the country on the map as a significant contributor to the space race.
With a focus on low-cost, low-orbit satellites that are used for a range of activities from communications to imaging, OCE develops robust software and hardware for space companies and organisations to help satellites not just survive, but thrive, beyond the comfort of the atmosphere.
On the software side, OCE is developing operating systems for use in mission-critical software.
“It has some unique features to prevent deadlocks in application software and the real-time OS provides many policing checks to ensure the customer’s application software runs as designed,” explained Barry Kavanagh, CEO and co-founder.
The multicore version of this OS, in which the processor can run instructions on separate cores at the same time, is called OCEOSmp and has some patent-pending features for the optimisation of task scheduling.
Last month, OCE signed a major contract with the ESA to develop its multicore OS for the European agency’s space missions.
Multicore systems are being adopted more by the ESA and other space agencies to increase the performance of computers. The design means an OS can distribute tasks across multiple cores rather than having tasks take turns on a single core.
“OCE is currently selling to the aerospace market but OCEOSmp is creating new opportunities for the company in other high-growth and global markets such as the smart manufacturing and medical industries,” Kavanagh said at the time.
Chipping in with AI
On the hardware side, OCE offers radiation-hardened integrated circuits, or ICs, to the space market.
Such ICs, also known as microchips, go hand-in-hand with the embedded software design OCE develops.
“Our design services team offers embedded software design to companies, many of whom are using OCE’s hardware products. OCE’s new AI chip designed for space has outperformed its competitors in independent tests,” said Kavanagh, a long-time executive in tech companies.
The high-performance AI chip is designed for processing images in-situ on satellites, making the most of an emerging technology to execute work faster and more efficiently.
Other than software and ICs, OCE also sells a range of branded satellite subsystems like star trackers which are used on satellites to determine their orientation in space.
While only a recent company, OCE’s story can be traced back to the 1980s.
“OCE was founded on the back of a contract to develop a software tool for a Chinese company delivering ICs into the space market,” said Kavanagh. “The CEO of this Chinese company had done his PhD in Ireland in the mid-1980s and had fond memories of his time here and knew the quality and imagination of Irish engineers.”
This led Kavanagh, along with fellow Irish tech executives Michael Ryan and Gerry Clarke, to found OCE Technology in 2013. The team has previously worked together in Irish companies delivering software and hardware to multinationals such as Intel, Siemens and Honeywell.
But the founding team alone can’t deliver the kind of advanced technologies needed to sign contracts with the likes of the ESA, which has been a long-time partner to the company. In 2017, the ESA signed a deal with OCE to use its debug tool aboard ESA satellites and spacecraft.
“We have put together an excellent engineering team that has delivered most contracts and product developments ahead of schedule,” said Kavanagh.
And while OCE has customers across Europe, South Korea, China and Singapore, “deteriorating relations” between the US and China have made it challenging to in sell in the US.
The US-China trade war may be a minor problem in penetrating the US market, but there’s a more systemic problem facing space-tech companies.
“The long sales cycle and conservative attitude towards new entrants to the space market has slowed the growth of the company,” said Barry. “The slower than predicted growth has provided challenges in relation to investment in the past.”
Today, however, OCE has reference sites in “most regions” and a “great track record” with projects for the ESA. Kavanagh said that the business is planning either a trade sale or flotation within the next three years.
In the meantime, OCE’s goal is to become the go-to maker of reliable operating systems and AI chips for embedded systems in the space market.
10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.