The digital and physical worlds are converging more now than ever, in fact it’s a development that is at the heart of what we do at Roke, and one that we believe is the greatest opportunity of our time. All our professions work to combine the physical and digital in new ways, but none in a more literal sense that our sensors and communications (S&C) team.
We caught up with S&C Head of Profession, Rob, to discuss his engineering career, some of the ground-breaking S&C projects spearheaded at Roke over the years and how the profession is evolving as technology and understanding develops.
Tell us about your entry into the industry
I’ve been interested in electronics for about as long as I can remember, and certainly during secondary school and eventually university. I joined Roke straight after graduating in 1999 and, apart from a year’s sabbatical, I’ve been here the whole time. However, I didn’t start to specialise in antennas, electromagnetics and RF until I worked on an antenna for the Siemens SX75 mobile phone in 2004.
How has Roke helped develop your career as an engineer?
Working at Roke has mainly provided exposure to a wide range of technologies and engineering methods, from software and scripting, through RF and microwave electronics, to propagation and electromagnetics simulation. Of course, Roke has supported my formal training needs, but also I’ve always felt that I could take the time to teach myself a new skill or work through a new tool if required. And to polish those business and soft skills there are always opportunities to write reports, present to customers, write and manage project plans, liaise with partners and subcontractors, and more. Lastly, with Roke funding and support, I’ve recently become a Chartered Engineer.
Tell us about some of the stand-out projects you’ve worked on at Roke over the years.
I joined Roke at just about the time the RipCore optical switch concept was getting going. This idea promised to bring petabit-per-second IP routing at a time when Google was a search engine and Netflix delivered movies on DVD by post! I was involved in designing some exceptionally fast digital logic circuits to generate picosecond-scale pulses, including using a single AND gate costing circa £5k.
I was heavily involved in the development of the current Type 1 and Type 2 Miniature Radar Altimeter (MRA) products, during and after their upgrade from the earlier MkIV and V versions. A big, and very enjoyable, part of this was proving their accuracy. The best way to exercise an altimeter is to take it up into the sky, so there followed numerous trials involving cherry-pickers, UAVs, helicopters and even hot air balloons. Sharing an early morning balloon ride over the Kent countryside with two champagne-supping couples, and me there with a laptop and a mass of radars and laser rangefinders strapped to the side of the basket, was a particular highlight!
Probably my favourite though was the ARTUS project to develop a high-precision antenna for millimetre-accuracy positioning applications using the ‘new’ Galileo GNSS constellation. As a young engineer I felt incredibly important to be left in charge of project management with a budget of £270k, designing and building first-of-its-kind hardware, publishing magazine and conference articles, applying for patents, and frequently travelling all over Europe to meet with the partners in our consortium.
How has S&C changed since you entered the field?
Two particular technological advances have come together to completely change the world: the availability of ever more powerful microprocessors at very low cost, size and power; and the integration of highly sophisticated radio transceivers into miniature modules and chips. The latter, particularly, has opened up the benefits of wireless connectivity to product designers with almost no understanding of RF and antennas. Even the antennas, traditionally the domain of the dark arts, are largely commoditised now: designs or parts can simply be dropped into a product like any other component because the need for the utmost electrical performance has been succeeded by spectacularly sensitive receivers. Connections between chips, too, are now mostly made using fast, flexible, and standardised serial digital interfaces, such as I2C, SPI, PCIe, and USB, making wiring-up a doddle.
So it is easier than ever before to combine a number of sensors, perhaps with a screen and buttons, some kind of processing, accurate time and/or position from GPS, and a high-bandwidth, reliable – and most importantly cheap – wireless backhaul to the rest of the world. Literally.
What are we doing at Roke that is at the forefront of S&C?
The recent proliferation of high-performance software-defined radios is enabling Roke to invent and explore the properties of new radio waveforms. These have the potential to do things like provide robust, spectrally-efficient and adaptive wireless communications in the presence of interference and multipath, or intentionally disrupt traditional communications very effectively. Both have obvious benefits on the battlefield but also play an important role in future civilian standards like 5G.
What does the future of S&C look like to you?
Emerging communications standards like 5G will permit much higher bandwidths and lower latencies, but will (and should) only be used for those services that truly require them, such as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-everything (V2X). More general sensor systems must continue to ‘get by’ with the lower bandwidths and higher latencies offered by the ubiquitous 4G and WiFi, and even the necessarily slow LoRa and Sigfox. Truly global wireless coverage will soon become accessible to almost all users, either by growth of existing satellite services like Inmarsat and Iridium, or with the introduction of new LEO services offered by the mega-constellation operators like OneWeb, SpaceX and Amazon.
At the same time, sensor systems will become more sophisticated and will need to, and be able to, perform greater processing functions at the sensor itself – either to reduce the burden on the communications networks, or to improve the quality of the information being gathered (e.g. extracting metadata or reducing false alarm rates). Some sensors will no longer need any external infrastructure, for example video or speech processing without needing the Cloud, and navigation and precise timing without GNSS. Other sensors will be able to work at greater distances from the phenomenon being sensed, for example by using sensor arrays to do beamforming, or with substantially greater sensitivity by employing quantum principles. There is still so much to come!
What do you do to unwind when you’re not innovating?
I like to make things (maybe that counts as innovating?) so DIY, vehicle maintenance and home electronics projects are a regular theme – my garage is stuffed to the rafters with tools, materials and the remains of past projects. I love the outdoors; I run and ride mountain bikes regularly and like camping whenever time permits. In summer I get to combine all my hobbies, along with listening to loud music, by going to music festivals with my family and friends in our campervan.
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Neil is our Futures Business Unit Director. Neil has held a number of senior roles at large organisations and is working with his team to take on the challenges of digitalisation and transformation by becoming a key technology partner to their customers.Find out more