Position: Senior Lecturer, Field: System design, embedded systems, software engineering, Organisation: Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Canterbury.

As a child, Dr Allan McInnes was interested in aircraft and spacecraft. How does a Kiwi kid go from dreaming about flight to working on the B-2 stealth bomber and the Mars exploration rovers?

Allan was intrigued by computers and programming as an intermediate school student. This led to an undergraduate degree in electrical and electronic engineering from the University of Canterbury. Allan moved to the US and worked as a software engineer for a small defence contractor. There he developed programs to test the electronics on the B-2 stealth bomber.

Allan’s next move was to follow in some famous footsteps – those of Mercury astronaut Gus Grisson and Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong – and study at Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The focus for his master’s degree was spacecraft orbit mechanics.

He then worked at the Aerospace Corporation, designing spacecraft for US Air Force space missions. Allan says, “I was lucky to be able to work as a systems engineer, which meant taking on the big picture and trying to understand how all of the pieces fit together. I worked on a lot of interesting projects.” One of these projects was the Mars exploration rovers. Allan worked on ‘failure mode analysis’ – he had to look at all the different ways the system might fail and make sure that this either wouldn’t happen or that there was a back-up plan. The rovers had an initial 90-day mission, but they functioned so well that their missions were extended – to over 6 years – or more than 25 times longer than originally planned!

After a few years of spacecraft design, Allan did a PhD in electrical and computer engineering at Utah State University. He says, “There I did research on applying process algebra and model-checking (techniques from computer science) to understanding the behaviour of spacecraft systems. In a sense, that project brought together my interests in software development and spacecraft design.”

There’s always something new to learn. Design is all about learning things – if we already understood the problem, we wouldn’t need to design a solution.

Allan returned to New Zealand to work in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Canterbury. He’s excited to be back working with many of the people who helped him have a great undergraduate experience and to have the opportunity to work with graduate students. His current research is focused on using software to make the things around us – cars, houses and robots – ‘smarter’. He’s also developing computer simulations to help design complex systems and ensure that they work as they’ve been designed to.

Outside of work, Allan likes to discover new craft beers, go hiking and dabble with new programming languages.

This article is based on information current in 2013.

    Published 27 March 2013