Christopher Skinner

BSc(Eng) MEngSc MIET MIEAust MACS CPEng captain RAN (retired)

Electrical Engineer (Ret.)

Christopher Skinner has been a member of Engineers Australia since 1981 and has participated at divisional, ITEE College and technical society levels. He is currently the Editor of the Australian Journal of Multidisciplinary Engineering and since retirement from the Navy, defence and transportation industries has become an advocate for nuclear propulsion. Christopher is also a life member of IEEE and of ACM.

How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
I became a Member of Engineers Australia in 1981, and have been active in various capacities within EA ever since. My engagement has included work with Sydney and Canberra Divisions, national committees and college boards (Information Technology, Electrical and Electronics).

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
I joined the RAN in 1959 and chose the weapons and electrical engineering specialisation as it was of most interest. I served at sea in six RAN ships and spent three extended periods in USA on training and digital modernisation. I also seconded into the United States Navy [USN] to manage the test and evaluation of a new class of frigates. The RAN also released me for one year to complete a Master of Engineering Science from UNSW majoring in software engineering.

Throughout my thirty years’ service I never once doubted that an engineering career was best for me. It provided a fulfilling life for myself, my wife and children with stimulating challenges for me that have never ended.

Many people are passionate on what needs to be done to resolve challenges; what is fascinating for me is also how this should be achieved – safely, efficiently and sustainably. These are the core principles of the engineering profession as I see it.

How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
I have been deeply involved in five main areas in which I believe my contribution is beneficial:

1. Software engineering – my earlier work to establish the ASWEC conference and for the engineering profession to work more closely with Information and Communications Technology [ICT] professionals.
2. Test and Evaluation – I have played an important part of reinforcement of the formal processes mainly derived from the USA into naval practice.
3. Intelligent Transport Systems [ITS] – After leaving the Navy I worked in the defence and transport technology industries. This included an active role in Intelligent Transport Systems Australia and on Standards Australia committees for ITS, with special interest in vehicle-to-vehicle [V2V] communications for collision avoidance. In my final seven years of workforce participation I lectured on ‘Intelligent Transport and Logistic Systems’ in The University of Sydney Business School.
4. Trusted Autonomous Systems [TAS] – I developed a strong interest in robotics and automation as it might be applied in transportation and in defence applications and contributed to the debate on the ethical framework in which autonomous systems should be constrained. This involvement ceased with the establishment of the Trusted Autonomous Systems Defence Cooperative Research Centre in Queensland, where this topic is being addressed fully.
5. Nuclear Propulsion [NP] – on Halloween 2018, I convened a meeting in Adelaide of 14 retired scientists, engineers, submariners and business people who agreed unanimously that we should move forward to investigate all the issues relating to nuclear propulsion independent of nuclear power for other purposes, and this we are doing.

What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
Every project has been even more challenging and interesting than the previous one and Nuclear Propulsion Roadmap for Australia® is no exception.

It is challenging to explain, to the full satisfaction of the Australian community, how nuclear submarines at the end of their life should be defueled, decontaminated, and dismantled. Another challenge is explaining how the residual radioactive waste material should be disposed of safely and sustainably. This must be fully resolved before we can reasonably expect support to adopt nuclear power for propulsion or other possible applications such as desalination, production of hydrogen or electrical generation.

What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
The biggest issue facing the engineering profession is the successful application of scientific and technological research with professional experience. It is challenging to maintain best practice commercialisation innovations whilst resolving the complex problems facing society.

What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
Increasing recognition that complex challenges are best addressed by multidisciplinary teams.

These diverse teams are comprised of people each possessing deep specialised knowledge and experience, under a leadership model that encourages innovation, mutual support and critical evaluation.

Who is your engineering hero?
My engineering hero is Admiral Hyman RICKOVER United States Navy [USN], engineering duty officer, father of nuclear navies of the world, and also instrumental in application of nuclear power for civil electrical generation. He achieved a momentous feat of development of the nuclear engineering profession from the obsessive development of nuclear weapons in World War 2, to the Atoms for Peace program launched by President Eisenhower.

Admiral Rickover accomplished a total transformation of naval practice to attain the highest standards of safety and efficiency, in spite of implacable opposition from the majority of the engineering and operational hierarchy within the USN. The standards and practices he caused to be developed persist to this day.

Reference: ROCKWELL, Theodore. The Rickover Effect. How one man made a difference. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis. (1992).

Image: courtesy of Christopher Skinner.