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Durham University

Technician Commitment


A message to our Technicians

Dear Members of the Technical Staff. The past year has been like no other and the corona virus infection has radically impacted on our lives and working patterns in many ways. Throughout the pandemic our Technical staff have been working tirelessly at the forefront, for example: working to prepare for lockdown; maintaining essential technical operations during lockdown; developing innovative new ways of working to enable research and education to continue; working with Health & Safety and facilities staff to prepare the safe re-opening and operation of buildings; and supporting the delivery of research and teaching as we re-open our departments in a Covid world. It is important to recognise and value the work and contribution delivered by Technicians, and their essential role in partnership with our Academic and Professional Services staff. Please find attached some of the many examples of where our Technicians have made important contributions to the operation of our departments and the delivery of research and education. As Chair of the Technician Commitment, I write to thank all our Technical staff for your tremendous efforts, significant contribution, and continued work in supporting Durham University.

Thank you

Professor Stefan Przyborski
Chair Technician Commitment Steering Group

Physics Technicians Helping to Adjust to Covid-safe Working.

(23 January 2021)

One of the key things the academic staff needed to discuss early in the lockdown was how to modify experiments so that they could be performed in a Covid-safe way while still providing a challenging experience for the student. The astronomy section is a good source of such projects since the telescopes can be used remotely from a number of covid-safe classrooms, the only requirement being a computer with a network link to the Astrolab network.

In order to maximise the availability of suitable experiments, we need to ensure that the telescopes and associated systems up on the roof are as reliable as possible. Technicians work closely with the academic staff to ensure this is the case.

Unfortunately, one of these systems failed right before the lockdown. The “all-sky” camera is used to see which parts of the sky are cloud-free at any given time so that the telescopes can be positioned appropriately. It can also show if the weather is deteriorating so the domes can be shut down for safety.

One of the things that could be done during the full lockdown was to work on this camera system at home, so that it could be re-installed in the department as soon as the lockdown ended. The camera is controlled via the internet using a Raspberry Pi computer. This small computer is fitted in the same housing as the camera which as a side effect produces a small amount of heat which in turn helps prevent dew forming inside the unit.During the lockdown we were able to repair and rebuild the camera unit. A way to test it “on the sky” was also required to verify it would work reliably and repeatability under outdoor conditions. A temporary waterproof housing was constructed out of an old plastic pot and a small piece of glass to act as a window.

After repairing and testing the unit, the opportunity was taken to make improvements to the software. This meant that the most recent camera images could be accessed by anyone on the Astrolab network in a simple “image gallery” format, or alternatively automated tools used to retrieve them for further processing. Additional measurements were taken on the power supply requirements which will be useful in future as we deploy more cameras in different locations.

The root causes of the problem and the repair process are fully documented on our technical support Wiki in case anyone needs to effect a similar repair in the future.