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Hitting the right frequency

BAE Systems Laurie Burgess has devoted a significant part of his professional life’s work to supporting the development and integration of a network that is central to the protection of Australia.
Hitting the right frequency.
That project is the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), a state-of-the-art defence system that comprises three Over-The-Horizon Radars (OTHR) located in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. JORN is capable of tracking objects across 37,000km2 of Australia’s northern and western air and sea approaches and plays a vital role in supporting the Australian Defence Force’s air and maritime operations, border surveillance, disaster relief and search and rescue operations.
 
Developed over several decades, JORN has presented plenty of challenges for the hundreds of engineers and scientists who have worked on it over the years. One constant has been Laurie whose report on a  prototype radar more than 30 years ago sparked an upgrade  and the continuing development, operations and maintenance of what has become the world’s leading high frequency radar system.
 
Laurie’s first contact with Jindalee radar came in the early 1980s when, as a member of the Royal Australian Air Force, he was asked to use his scientific and electronics training to prepare a report on the Jindalee Stage B system that was operating at Mount Everard near Alice Springs. That report detailed a highly capable surveillance system that was a maintainer’s nightmare. Little did he know then that he would go on to play a role in the continuing development and support of JORN.
 
Key to Laurie’s work has been the support of his employer, BAE Systems Australia, which has invested more than 25 years in research and development activities into JORN, which includes expertise realised through development of promising young engineers and acquisitions of companies.
 
BAE Systems has a team of more than 200 engineers, technicians and support staff committed to the ‘life cycle’ of the highly sophisticated JORN capability, from technology development to manufacturing , integration and testing, 24/7 operational support and radar maintenance in some of Australia’s most remote areas. The company also manages the JORN radar in the Northern Territory near Alice Springs and works closely and shares site facilities at Edinburgh Defence Precinct with the OTHR Systems Program Office and the Defence Science and Technology Group.
 
Laurie has been involved with many aspects of the JORN project and spent his first few years working for AWA on the radar near Alice Springs. For most of his civilian career, however, he has been based in Adelaide and now manages the High Frequency Surveillance group within BAE Systems.
 
He says one of the highlights of his work on JORN was helping his team evolve the receiver system and transmit drive chain technology from analogue to digital.
 
“Early on I sat down with the team and asked them what we could do to make BAE Systems different to our competitors and their answer was to be innovative and produce products. So we set off with the DSTO (now DSTG) HF Radar Division and our advanced technology group in Alice Springs and started on the development of digital receivers and associated products,” he says.
 
“The time was right as it was the same time as mobile phones were transitioning from analogue to digital and we leveraged the componentry that was designed for digital mobile phones into our digital receivers.
 
“We piggy-backed off that technology and developed a digital receiver and that was tested and then put into the radar and since then we have been continuing to evolve and expand the technology.”
 
With support from DST Group, BAE Systems has created a niche market for this high end technology and has been exporting its high frequency systems into the United States.
 
“When we developed the digital receiver we realised that we were the world leader in this field – no one in this industry knows long range HF surveillance technology like we do,” said Laurie.
 
While having such a long involvement in the project is an obvious advantage, building a great team and an environment that fosters innovation has also been key to BAE Systems’ success with JORN.
 
“We encourage people to be innovative and to come up with different ways of doing things to make sure we are leaders of technology. Getting the right people, creating a culture which encourages them to think outside the square and involving the customer – the end user – is why we are successful,” explains Laurie.
 
It was this innovative approach that attracted Michelle Horne, 23, to apply for a graduate position with BAE Systems a couple of years ago. Since then she’s been working on prototypes that will produce the next generation of receive and transmit architecture for JORN and in October started working on the Digital Direct Drive Chain (D3C) project.  This has her designing a new digital transmission architecture with real time performance monitoring, which will reduce technical risk prior to the next major upgrade for JORN.
 
With a double degree in computer and information science and media arts, she admits this wasn’t necessarily how she thought her career path would go – but she has no regrets and is loving working on JORN.
 
“There’s always something different to do – the defence industry has a bucketful of challenges and there are so many obsolescence issues to keep us busy.
 
“It’s also great that we have people like Laurie who have so much experience with the network and are happy to pass on their knowledge to us.”
 
Now Laurie is committed to ensuring his decades of experience with JORN is not lost and enjoys mentoring the next generation of engineers and technicians at BAE Systems.
 
However, he says the future for OTHR is still very exciting and the opportunity to work with DST Group, the end users and export customers is extremely satisfying, hence, he is not ready to retire just yet.
 
For JORN is about to enter its next big capability development – Project AIR2025 Phase 6 – and Laurie and his team are looking forward to building on what they have achieved over the past 35 years.