25 Mar 2021

Measurement’s role in emerging technology, innovation, and the digital infrastructure

Andrew Smith, Strategy Manager, Digital, at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) discusses trends and opportunities in technology and the role of a National Metrology Institute in maximising success, for the UK’s future integrated communication networks. 

The importance of telecommunications has become more widely appreciated as many of us have communicated with loved ones and, for some, remotely delivered our jobs during a global pandemic. And we all - whether businesses, citizens, or government - expect continuing improvements in “always on and unlimited” communications both as part of our ongoing digital transformation, and to enable new (or improving) applications.  

This expectation for continual improvement presents a challenge for the required technology advances, as well as for future business models, particularly the requirement for better resilience and diversification.   

As the UK’s National Metrology Institute, NPL provides the measurement capability that underpins the UK's prosperity and quality of life, and as a national laboratory we use our measurement capability to support R&D and enable innovation. We anticipate future trends and make sure the underpinning measurement infrastructure is in place for the UK, in an increasingly digital world this also means that we use our measurement expertise to provide confidence in the data. So how do we see the future over the next decade or two? 

Future Communications Technologies  

We can predict many technology improvements. In wireless, we will transmit and receive complex electromagnetic signals in more innovative and smarter ways. For example, antenna technologies will extend across a wider range of frequencies (such as mm-wave), we will develop and deploy more active reflective surfaces and smart metamaterials. Furthermore, massive MIMO arrays will add innovative holography and smart - and predictive - beamforming and location tracking. Photonics communications will expand, not just in better use of fibre, but in terahertz with novel applications of free-space optics and visible light communications technologies working in tandem with rf.   

Longer term, quantum technologies will inevitably provide, not just, secure communications through QKD, but a new era in quantum computing leading to the quantum internet of the future. To meet the challenges of better control of spectrum and data more accurate timing and synchronisation solutions will also be required. 

Future Applications  

There will be the steady development of applications being tested and deployed across many areas. Examples include autonomous transport, Industry 4.0, smart farming, smart grids, smart healthcare, (see many good examples in DMCS 5GTT use cases). There will be also be novel applications not yet conceived – in effect new technology will beget new applications (and to a certain extent vice-versa).  

We also predict that infrastructure and web applications will become more immersive and broaden the use of senses. Better touch, smell and even taste will be added to existing sound, vision, and (some) tactile too – this multi-sense tactile holographic internet will open up lots of exciting possibilities.


Future convergence of the UK’s national digital fabric is widely predicted - with several meanings and connotations, including : convergence of transceiver medium and modality (e.g. fibre, free space light, wireless RAN, satellite, mobile platforms, drones); convergence of hardware, software and data (networks, data centres, backhaul, the cloud, the edge, the core, AI); and convergence of the physical and cyber/ virtual worlds. 

At NPL we see convergence of all of these across the ICT sector (the sector includes high performance computing, data, broadcasting, and AI, together with telecoms). There will be interoperable (and technology-agnostic) disaggregated communication networks driven by data and orchestrated and operated by AI. This will require a whole systems approach underpinned by large scale physical and virtual development and testing facilities to provide confidence in data. 

Net zero 

Some measures to mitigate climate change have been implemented in telecoms, but more work is required to improve energy efficiency (even to stand still with increasing bandwidth demand). It is critical that measures of energy efficiency (e.g. bits/ joule) are widely used across the whole data ecosystem, including cloud data centres and storage as well as base stations, our fibre networks and devices.   

Improvements to novel materials and low power electronics will help, and quantum technology has the potential to be a game changer in these areas. This includes network optimisation by quantum machine learning, underpinned by accurate timing to ensure maximum efficiency of information exchange.  

UK outlook 

The UK is world-leading in much of the technology described above, particularly in software, AI and quantum technologies. For the UK to benefit most we also need to focus on: increased and coordinated R&D investment; ability to accelerate down-streaming across the ecosystem (from research to commercialisation); improved attraction (and retention) of a diverse pool of talent; increased UK presence and influence at standard-setting bodies; and also demonstrating international leadership.  

With new technologies, new networks, and a digital transformation environment, the vision of a converged, interoperable, AI-driven, and quantum-enhanced digital future can be realised. 

Andrew Smith is Strategy Manager, Digital, at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). You can follow the NPL on Twitter.

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