Engineering tips, expert engineers, electronics, embedded software, manufacturing

Top Tips for Aspiring Engineers

By: Emma Plumtree

Sales & Marketing Administrator

26th November 2020

5 minute read

Home » Plextek

Here at Plextek we are lucky to have so many expert engineers under one roof, specialising in electronics, embedded software, manufacturing and so much more. We are always looking to expand our pool of expertise and more importantly to help develop and hone an individual’s skills in their chosen field. We take pride in being supporters of STEM studies and offer an invaluable graduate scheme every summer for aspiring engineers. Whilst we have just launched our job applications for the next cohort of Summer Internships, we asked some of our senior staff and mentors for some pearls of wisdom that they have learnt along the path of their careers and top tips they would give their younger selves knowing what they know now…

Nick Hill – On starting any project

Read the exam question carefully.  Make sure you fully understand the problem before you start work on anything.  Question and probe the problem definition you have been given – don’t take it for granted that it is accurate.  Look for areas where the definition is not complete, so your assumption might be different from the author’s assumption.  The further you get into a project the more painful it becomes to make a change of direction.

Kevin Jones – On working effectively

Plan, Plan, Plan – Planning will pay off no matter how great the temptation to hack your latest idea.

Delivery Day – Try to complete end-of-week commitments on Thursdays. If it’s late then you still have Friday to sort it out.

Pretty Ugly – In my first proper job I spent a week creating what I believed was a beautiful user interface only to find it displayed the wrong information. Make it work before you make it pretty.

Do Nothing – Sometimes leaving a device-under-test alone will show more than continually tweaking the device. This helped me find a problem after leaving a controller running for several days.

David Kyle – On usability

The fundamental rules I follow are (1) keep it as simple as you can and no simpler, (2) if it can go wrong it will go wrong, (3) programming languages are not a fashion statement  (4) and think of the next person that has to pick up your work long after you’ve gone.  In other words, is anyone going to thank you in the years to come if they have to fix your thoroughly broken application, and all because you thought the chances of a scenario happening were too small to worry about, and certainly not worth the effort of handling in your 27 layers of abstraction written in a once trendy functional programming language that disappeared five years ago! Remember, one day you might be that next developer!

Alan Cucknell – on seeing through the problem

The best engineers I know display certain habits. One being empathy – they try to see a problem through the customer/installer/remover/user/regulator/stakeholder’s eyes (not just other engineers).  For some reason this is super unusual with most engineers who find it hard to see beyond the technology of a problem. It is also easy for technical folk to say what is or isn’t possible (or cost effective etc).  The best engineers know how to ask the next question (or suggest the next solution) by questioning, testing assumptions, checking understanding.  Even if the technical facts remain the same, much problem solving, and innovation happens by challenging and limiting assumptions and not simply by accepting the world as “yes or no”.

In the Summer before starting Engineering at Cambridge I read  James Gordon’s book Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down.  One paragraph stood out to me: “I used to lie awake night after night worrying about [the problem], and I attribute the fact that none of these components ever gave me trouble almost entirely to the beneficent effects of worry. It is confidence that causes accidents and worry which prevents them.”  Perhaps in a less extreme way it is those engineers that continue to think about the problem from many different angles and perspectives (and not just a job they did) that I think ultimately succeed.

Peter Massam – on making a difference

I decided to become an engineer while looking at the university courses I might reasonably tackle with my knowledge of maths and physics. I realised that I like the idea of producing things that would affect the way people lived their lives.

To a certain extent I lost sight of that goal at university and in the first few years of my employment. Not that I regretted being an engineer, oh no. I simply took pleasure in solving the challenges I was given – write the software to control the plotter, develop the calibration process…

However, in recent years I find myself looking at the products that I’ve worked on and it feels good to think that I was part of the team that changed the world in that way. It’s what engineers do.

 

With thanks to:

Nick Hill, CEO

Kevin Jones, Embedded Systems Software Engineer / Senior Consultant

David Kyle, Data Exploitation Software Engineer / Principal Consultant

Alan Cucknell, Head of Ignite Exponential – Plextek’s Innovation Unit

Peter Massam – Signal Processing Software Engineer / Principal Consultant

 

We hope you have found this advice useful and perhaps inspired to take the leap into starting your own engineering career!

If you are a student studying for an MEng Degree and are passionate about engineering, are creative, and love learning then head to our vacancy page to read more about the exciting projects you could be working on if you join us here at Plextek.

We look forward to starting the interview process soon and maybe we’ll see you next year…

Here at Plextek we are lucky to have so many expert engineers under one roof, specialising in electronics, embedded software, manufacturing and so much more. We are always looking to expand our pool of expertise and more importantly to help develop and hone an individual’s skills in their chosen field. We take pride in being supporters of STEM studies and offer an invaluable graduate scheme every summer for aspiring engineers. Whilst we have just launched our job applications for the next cohort of Summer Internships, we asked some of our senior staff and mentors for some pearls of wisdom that they have learnt along the path of their careers and top tips they would give their younger selves knowing what they know now…

Nick Hill – On starting any project

Read the exam question carefully.  Make sure you fully understand the problem before you start work on anything.  Question and probe the problem definition you have been given – don’t take it for granted that it is accurate.  Look for areas where the definition is not complete, so your assumption might be different from the author’s assumption.  The further you get into a project the more painful it becomes to make a change of direction.

Kevin Jones – On working effectively

Plan, Plan, Plan – Planning will pay off no matter how great the temptation to hack your latest idea.

Delivery Day – Try to complete end-of-week commitments on Thursdays. If it’s late then you still have Friday to sort it out.

Pretty Ugly – In my first proper job I spent a week creating what I believed was a beautiful user interface only to find it displayed the wrong information. Make it work before you make it pretty.

Do Nothing – Sometimes leaving a device-under-test alone will show more than continually tweaking the device. This helped me find a problem after leaving a controller running for several days.

David Kyle – On usability

The fundamental rules I follow are (1) keep it as simple as you can and no simpler, (2) if it can go wrong it will go wrong, (3) programming languages are not a fashion statement  (4) and think of the next person that has to pick up your work long after you’ve gone.  In other words, is anyone going to thank you in the years to come if they have to fix your thoroughly broken application, and all because you thought the chances of a scenario happening were too small to worry about, and certainly not worth the effort of handling in your 27 layers of abstraction written in a once trendy functional programming language that disappeared five years ago! Remember, one day you might be that next developer!

Alan Cucknell – on seeing through the problem

The best engineers I know display certain habits. One being empathy – they try to see a problem through the customer/installer/remover/user/regulator/stakeholder’s eyes (not just other engineers).  For some reason this is super unusual with most engineers who find it hard to see beyond the technology of a problem. It is also easy for technical folk to say what is or isn’t possible (or cost effective etc).  The best engineers know how to ask the next question (or suggest the next solution) by questioning, testing assumptions, checking understanding.  Even if the technical facts remain the same, much problem solving, and innovation happens by challenging and limiting assumptions and not simply by accepting the world as “yes or no”.

In the Summer before starting Engineering at Cambridge I read  James Gordon’s book Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down.  One paragraph stood out to me: “I used to lie awake night after night worrying about [the problem], and I attribute the fact that none of these components ever gave me trouble almost entirely to the beneficent effects of worry. It is confidence that causes accidents and worry which prevents them.”  Perhaps in a less extreme way it is those engineers that continue to think about the problem from many different angles and perspectives (and not just a job they did) that I think ultimately succeed.

Peter Massam – on making a difference

I decided to become an engineer while looking at the university courses I might reasonably tackle with my knowledge of maths and physics. I realised that I like the idea of producing things that would affect the way people lived their lives.

To a certain extent I lost sight of that goal at university and in the first few years of my employment. Not that I regretted being an engineer, oh no. I simply took pleasure in solving the challenges I was given – write the software to control the plotter, develop the calibration process…

However, in recent years I find myself looking at the products that I’ve worked on and it feels good to think that I was part of the team that changed the world in that way. It’s what engineers do.

 

With thanks to:

Nick Hill, CEO

Kevin Jones, Embedded Systems Software Engineer / Senior Consultant

David Kyle, Data Exploitation Software Engineer / Principal Consultant

Alan Cucknell, Head of Ignite Exponential – Plextek’s Innovation Unit

Peter Massam – Signal Processing Software Engineer / Principal Consultant

 

We hope you have found this advice useful and perhaps inspired to take the leap into starting your own engineering career!

If you are a student studying for an MEng Degree and are passionate about engineering, are creative, and love learning then head to our vacancy page to read more about the exciting projects you could be working on if you join us here at Plextek.

We look forward to starting the interview process soon and maybe we’ll see you next year…

Radars in medical imaging, brain scans

Can Radar be used for Medical Imaging & Monitoring?

By: Nigel Whittle

Head of Medical & Healthcare

10th November 2020

5 minute read

Home » Plextek

Medical imaging is one of the most important technologies available to doctors and other medical workers, providing critical information for diagnosis and treatment. There is however no single technology for imaging of internal structures that is universally applicable to all tissues, has high resolution, is inexpensive, doesn’t use ionizing radiation, and creates images in real-time. An ideal system would also be portable and low-cost, with the potential for use in ambulances and other out-of-hospital environments.

In recent years a substantial body of experimental work has been performed to apply microwave and radar technologies to the field of medical imaging and biosensing.

Microwave Imaging

The microwave frequency band (300 MHz–30 GHz) possesses useful characteristics, including the use of non-ionizing radiation which is harmless at moderate power levels but penetrates biological tissue reasonably well. Compared with more conventional medical imaging systems such as MRI and X-ray, microwave systems generally offer a lower spatial resolution but a high temporal resolution (ie the ability to resolve fast-paced events).

Microwave medical imaging has been used for breast cancer screening. In this form it relies on differences in dielectric properties between the constituent tissues of the healthy and cancerous tissues in shallow parts of the body. It has also been investigated for stroke detection, bladder volume control, lung oedema, bone analysis and other possibilities.

However the problem with the approach is that human beings are essentially soft tubes of salty water and therefore quite conductive. This significantly reduces the penetration depth possible with radar, such that deeper screening within the body is not really viable.

With lower frequencies (4 – 8 GHz) it is possible to achieve some penetration, but this necessarily reduces the spatial resolution of the output image.

My colleague Damien Clarke, Lead Consultant at Plextek, provided me with the following insights: “This approach for breast cancer screening has been researched for at least a decade now. I know Bristol University has performed significant work in this area, though I don’t know if a clinical product is actually viable yet. Radar Tomography (RT), a new concept in medical imaging, has the potential to encompass all of the above criteria, and so curb radiation exposure, inconvenience, discomfort, and cost.”

Ultra Wide Band

Ultra-wideband (UWB) is a short-range wireless communication protocol, like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, that uses short pulses of radio waves over a spectrum of frequencies ranging from 3.1 to 10.5 GHz. The allowable power limit has been set very low to avoid interference with other technologies that operate in this frequency band, while the wide bandwidth enables very fine time-space resolution.

Due to its features, UWB has the potential for medical monitoring, such as patient motion, wireless vital signs, and medicine storage monitoring. This monitoring function could be applied in intensive care units, post-operative environments, home health care, and paediatric clinics. The deployment of UWB vital signs monitoring system could also enable proactive home monitoring of elderly patients, which could decrease the cost of healthcare by allowing eligible patients to return home from hospital.

Perhaps more significantly, UWB has the potential to detect, noninvasively, tiny movements inside the human body. It could therefore use movement detection of the aorta or other parts of the arterial system to monitor cardiovascular physiology, or other parameters such as heart rate (HR), respiration motion, and blood pressure (BP). Imaging of surface and more deeply located structures such as breast tissue for cancer diagnosis is another promising application of UWB technology that has the potential of taking over the role of X-ray mammography.

Bodily motion

A possible medical application of radar however is to measure chest motion without contact. By looking for particular frequency oscillations it is then possible to estimate heart rate (0.8 – 2 Hz) and respiration rate (0.1 – 0.5 Hz) simultaneously. It is also possible to detect shivering (< 14 Hz) and micro-shivering (7 – 11 Hz) though I don’t really know whether that is a useful diagnostic capability.

Conclusion

As the medical world turns its attention to long-term, mobile, and even home-based imaging and monitoring for preventive screening and early detection of diseases, radar-based biosensing and imaging applications are likely to play an increasingly important role.

Their advantages include potentially low cost and small size of the required hardware, plus a wide application across fields as diverse as heart rate tracking, sleep monitoring and fall detection for the elderly, right across to screening of the cardiovascular system, breast cancer imaging and stroke detection.

References:
Compound Radar Approach for Breast Imaging

Micro-Shivering Detection

Medical imaging is one of the most important technologies available to doctors and other medical workers, providing critical information for diagnosis and treatment. There is however no single technology for imaging of internal structures that is universally applicable to all tissues, has high resolution, is inexpensive, doesn’t use ionizing radiation, and creates images in real-time. An ideal system would also be portable and low-cost, with the potential for use in ambulances and other out-of-hospital environments.

In recent years a substantial body of experimental work has been performed to apply microwave and radar technologies to the field of medical imaging and biosensing.

Microwave Imaging

The microwave frequency band (300 MHz–30 GHz) possesses useful characteristics, including the use of non-ionizing radiation which is harmless at moderate power levels but penetrates biological tissue reasonably well. Compared with more conventional medical imaging systems such as MRI and X-ray, microwave systems generally offer a lower spatial resolution but a high temporal resolution (ie the ability to resolve fast-paced events).

Microwave medical imaging has been used for breast cancer screening. In this form it relies on differences in dielectric properties between the constituent tissues of the healthy and cancerous tissues in shallow parts of the body. It has also been investigated for stroke detection, bladder volume control, lung oedema, bone analysis and other possibilities.

However the problem with the approach is that human beings are essentially soft tubes of salty water and therefore quite conductive. This significantly reduces the penetration depth possible with radar, such that deeper screening within the body is not really viable.

With lower frequencies (4 – 8 GHz) it is possible to achieve some penetration, but this necessarily reduces the spatial resolution of the output image.

My colleague Damien Clarke, Lead Consultant at Plextek, provided me with the following insights: “This approach for breast cancer screening has been researched for at least a decade now. I know Bristol University has performed significant work in this area, though I don’t know if a clinical product is actually viable yet. Radar Tomography (RT), a new concept in medical imaging, has the potential to encompass all of the above criteria, and so curb radiation exposure, inconvenience, discomfort, and cost.”

Ultra Wide Band

Ultra-wideband (UWB) is a short-range wireless communication protocol, like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, that uses short pulses of radio waves over a spectrum of frequencies ranging from 3.1 to 10.5 GHz. The allowable power limit has been set very low to avoid interference with other technologies that operate in this frequency band, while the wide bandwidth enables very fine time-space resolution.

Due to its features, UWB has the potential for medical monitoring, such as patient motion, wireless vital signs, and medicine storage monitoring. This monitoring function could be applied in intensive care units, post-operative environments, home health care, and paediatric clinics. The deployment of UWB vital signs monitoring system could also enable proactive home monitoring of elderly patients, which could decrease the cost of healthcare by allowing eligible patients to return home from hospital.

Perhaps more significantly, UWB has the potential to detect, noninvasively, tiny movements inside the human body. It could therefore use movement detection of the aorta or other parts of the arterial system to monitor cardiovascular physiology, or other parameters such as heart rate (HR), respiration motion, and blood pressure (BP). Imaging of surface and more deeply located structures such as breast tissue for cancer diagnosis is another promising application of UWB technology that has the potential of taking over the role of X-ray mammography.

Bodily motion

A possible medical application of radar however is to measure chest motion without contact. By looking for particular frequency oscillations it is then possible to estimate heart rate (0.8 – 2 Hz) and respiration rate (0.1 – 0.5 Hz) simultaneously. It is also possible to detect shivering (< 14 Hz) and micro-shivering (7 – 11 Hz) though I don’t really know whether that is a useful diagnostic capability.

Conclusion

As the medical world turns its attention to long-term, mobile, and even home-based imaging and monitoring for preventive screening and early detection of diseases, radar-based biosensing and imaging applications are likely to play an increasingly important role.

Their advantages include potentially low cost and small size of the required hardware, plus a wide application across fields as diverse as heart rate tracking, sleep monitoring and fall detection for the elderly, right across to screening of the cardiovascular system, breast cancer imaging and stroke detection.

References:
Compound Radar Approach for Breast Imaging

Micro-Shivering Detection

Further Reading

smart parking systems, traffic congestion, passenger counting technologies

Transportation IOT: Keeping our roads safe

Nicholas Koiza - Head of Business Development, Security

By: Nick Koiza

Head of Security Business

20th October 2020

4 minute read

Home » Plextek

As we all start moving around our transport systems again, I am reminded almost daily by the risks and safety concerns linked to our congested road systems.

I have a vision that the public should be able to travel easily without worrying about safety on the roads. Aside from education, vehicle servicing, and standard infrastructure maintenance, I believe IoT technologies will significantly enhance the safety of our public whilst they use our road networks. The transportation industry is a huge investor in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), spending approximately $78 billion from 2016-2018. Safety is a part of ‘Transportation IOT’ that is vital for overall success.

In this blog, I list what I consider to be the top 5 areas of transport safety that can be enhanced by IoT technologies:

 

  1. Real-Time Data & AI:

Knowing when to avoid congested or high-risk areas seems simple, but avoidance is the first step to reducing safety risk.  Real-time data utilising AI can be powerful together with IoT technologies. With analytics that can facilitate increased intelligence, we are enabled to make enhanced decision making at both a central or individual level.

Data can come from a huge range of sources. ‘Connected parking’ data can include smart parking systems like the one we helped to develop in Moscow which supports a better flow of vehicles around an urban environment. Interestingly, smart street lighting utilises real-time data to assess when it is dark enough to switch lights on, providing a safer environment. But also these lights could be used in the future as a ‘hub’ for collecting other data like pollution, traffic, and other data.  That combined use of IoT and AI for our network and its surroundings is in its infancy but watch this space.

One of our clients, CNI Guard uses an underground system with environmental sensors to monitor infrastructure. The system prevents and mitigates the risk of gas explosions, stray voltage, flooding, and other breaches of safety, environmental, and quality control regulation. What would have previously taken an accident (ie a manhole explosion) and then a team of people to manually close the road and assess, IoT has enabled automation and risk prevention rather than remediation.

 

  1. Intelligent Transportation Routes

People often use routes they are used to, or ‘the well-trodden path’ instead of the more efficient route. As our Head of Innovation, Alan Cucknell, observed, “people easily fall into routines. When the horrific 7/7 London bombings happened, millions of people were forced to change their usual commuter route. This is a massive behavioural change to observe and interestingly, many people never went back to their previous route. Familiar is not always the best route and smart transport options can find the optimal route, not the route that people are used to”. Innovation in transport can include technology to enable people to make better and safer transport choices, including Public Transit management. At a very basic level, a potential passenger can use a digital display to see how long before their bus/tram arrives. During Covid, more passenger counting technologies are being invested in. These technologies can help companies assess whether their networks are getting congested and unsafe. On a more personalised level, each traveller could use a combination of geofencing, AI, and other smart route tools to enable a personalised, low risk, and quick route.

 

  1. Intelligence on Driver Behaviour

Human error is hard to prevent. How do you incentivise drivers to be more careful, when laws and signage has a limited effect? Our sister company, Redtail Telematics, collects precise, high-resolution data from onboard devices and apps about driver behaviour. This enables insurance companies to offer premiums based on real rather than perceived risk. This can in turn encourage drivers to be more careful on the roads, with rewards related to their behaviour, and subsequently reduced premiums.

When talking to my colleague Andrew Little, of Redtail about whether the technology actually makes a difference on the street, Andrew states: “‘The first six-12 months of a driving career are statistically the most risky. With insight into driving behaviours that can be improved, lives can be, and indeed have been, saved”.

For commercial companies, Vehicle Asset Management (VAM) products provide certainty that vehicles are being driven well, running efficiently, and are where they are supposed to be. This gives fleet managers greater visibility and information to extract further performance from their fleet, which in turn reduces costs as well as safety/operational risk.

Automotive OEMs are increasingly invested in Connected vehicle data (incl. driver behaviours) via conduit platforms to support the road safety agenda.

 

  1. Smart Logistics:

Smart logistics make supply chains more efficient and safer.  Using Intelligent software to identify weak spots in a supply chain can alleviate dangers in transit.

A company, still in the concept stage, I am excited about is Celsius Dynamics which is a logistics solution for cold chain distribution services. Using proprietary algorithms, their smart, digital platform looks at the cold chain process from the manufacturer through to all sequences of temperature-controlled environments.   This level of automation and intelligence theoretically means you can avoid temperature-related explosions in transit, driver tiredness/safety, and ultimately the customer receives a better quality product upon delivery. 

Smart logistics, combined with connected vehicle data is a powerful tool for companies.

 

  1. Autonomous Vehicles & Smart Roads

I believe we need to be very careful about how we implement autonomous vehicles on our roads to ensure that all road users are safer than before this development.   Ensuring the strictest onboard safety standards are adhered to, combined with ‘Smart Street Furniture’ is key.  Practical object and vehicle recognition in intelligent and autonomous transport systems remain a data-first problem.  The de-risking exercise involves testing and validation using real-life scenarios in a controlled environment. The health of the decisions taken by the vehicles on-board systems needs to be validated by external sources of information on our roads.  The more unique data that is captured and identified, the more accurate the decision models can be.

Here in the UK, we have started to invest in Smart Roads, but there is a lot of misunderstanding about what a true Smart Road is with many believing the focus is on speed control which is only part of the puzzle.   Cranfield University’s work on project HumanDrive is an exciting development.

Conclusion:

The transportation industry is making great strides in its evolution, and I am so proud that security technologies can enable individuals and companies to be safer using our transport network. This topic is close to my heart so if you have any developments you think I should know about, please get in touch for a chat: Nicholas.koiza@plextek.com.

As we all start moving around our transport systems again, I am reminded almost daily by the risks and safety concerns linked to our congested road systems.

I have a vision that the public should be able to travel easily without worrying about safety on the roads. Aside from education, vehicle servicing, and standard infrastructure maintenance, I believe IoT technologies will significantly enhance the safety of our public whilst they use our road networks. The transportation industry is a huge investor in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), spending approximately $78 billion from 2016-2018. Safety is a part of ‘Transportation IOT’ that is vital for overall success.

In this blog, I list what I consider to be the top 5 areas of transport safety that can be enhanced by IoT technologies:

 

  1. Real-Time Data & AI:

Knowing when to avoid congested or high-risk areas seems simple, but avoidance is the first step to reducing safety risk.  Real-time data utilising AI can be powerful together with IoT technologies. With analytics that can facilitate increased intelligence, we are enabled to make enhanced decision making at both a central or individual level.

Data can come from a huge range of sources. ‘Connected parking’ data can include smart parking systems like the one we helped to develop in Moscow which supports a better flow of vehicles around an urban environment. Interestingly, smart street lighting utilises real-time data to assess when it is dark enough to switch lights on, providing a safer environment. But also these lights could be used in the future as a ‘hub’ for collecting other data like pollution, traffic, and other data.  That combined use of IoT and AI for our network and its surroundings is in its infancy but watch this space.

One of our clients, CNI Guard uses an underground system with environmental sensors to monitor infrastructure. The system prevents and mitigates the risk of gas explosions, stray voltage, flooding, and other breaches of safety, environmental, and quality control regulation. What would have previously taken an accident (ie a manhole explosion) and then a team of people to manually close the road and assess, IoT has enabled automation and risk prevention rather than remediation.

 

  1. Intelligent Transportation Routes

People often use routes they are used to, or ‘the well-trodden path’ instead of the more efficient route. As our Head of Innovation, Alan Cucknell, observed, “people easily fall into routines. When the horrific 7/7 London bombings happened, millions of people were forced to change their usual commuter route. This is a massive behavioural change to observe and interestingly, many people never went back to their previous route. Familiar is not always the best route and smart transport options can find the optimal route, not the route that people are used to”. Innovation in transport can include technology to enable people to make better and safer transport choices, including Public Transit management. At a very basic level, a potential passenger can use a digital display to see how long before their bus/tram arrives. During Covid, more passenger counting technologies are being invested in. These technologies can help companies assess whether their networks are getting congested and unsafe. On a more personalised level, each traveller could use a combination of geofencing, AI, and other smart route tools to enable a personalised, low risk, and quick route.

 

  1. Intelligence on Driver Behaviour

Human error is hard to prevent. How do you incentivise drivers to be more careful, when laws and signage has a limited effect? Our sister company, Redtail Telematics, collects precise, high-resolution data from onboard devices and apps about driver behaviour. This enables insurance companies to offer premiums based on real rather than perceived risk. This can in turn encourage drivers to be more careful on the roads, with rewards related to their behaviour, and subsequently reduced premiums.

When talking to my colleague Andrew Little, of Redtail about whether the technology actually makes a difference on the street, Andrew states: “‘The first six-12 months of a driving career are statistically the most risky. With insight into driving behaviours that can be improved, lives can be, and indeed have been, saved”.

For commercial companies, Vehicle Asset Management (VAM) products provide certainty that vehicles are being driven well, running efficiently, and are where they are supposed to be. This gives fleet managers greater visibility and information to extract further performance from their fleet, which in turn reduces costs as well as safety/operational risk.

Automotive OEMs are increasingly invested in Connected vehicle data (incl. driver behaviours) via conduit platforms to support the road safety agenda.

 

  1. Smart Logistics:

Smart logistics make supply chains more efficient and safer.  Using Intelligent software to identify weak spots in a supply chain can alleviate dangers in transit.

A company, still in the concept stage, I am excited about is Celsius Dynamics which is a logistics solution for cold chain distribution services. Using proprietary algorithms, their smart, digital platform looks at the cold chain process from the manufacturer through to all sequences of temperature-controlled environments.   This level of automation and intelligence theoretically means you can avoid temperature-related explosions in transit, driver tiredness/safety, and ultimately the customer receives a better quality product upon delivery. 

Smart logistics, combined with connected vehicle data is a powerful tool for companies.

 

  1. Autonomous Vehicles & Smart Roads

I believe we need to be very careful about how we implement autonomous vehicles on our roads to ensure that all road users are safer than before this development.   Ensuring the strictest onboard safety standards are adhered to, combined with ‘Smart Street Furniture’ is key.  Practical object and vehicle recognition in intelligent and autonomous transport systems remain a data-first problem.  The de-risking exercise involves testing and validation using real-life scenarios in a controlled environment. The health of the decisions taken by the vehicles on-board systems needs to be validated by external sources of information on our roads.  The more unique data that is captured and identified, the more accurate the decision models can be.

Here in the UK, we have started to invest in Smart Roads, but there is a lot of misunderstanding about what a true Smart Road is with many believing the focus is on speed control which is only part of the puzzle.   Cranfield University’s work on project HumanDrive is an exciting development.

Conclusion:

The transportation industry is making great strides in its evolution, and I am so proud that security technologies can enable individuals and companies to be safer using our transport network. This topic is close to my heart so if you have any developments you think I should know about, please get in touch for a chat: Nicholas.koiza@plextek.com.

Process Optimisation, business growth, product development, business improvement practices, engineering solutions, creativity?

Can Trump rapidly deploy his ‘miracle cure’?

By: Nigel Whittle

Head of Medical & Healthcare

9th October 2020

3 minute read

Home » Plextek

Last Friday Donald Trump was treated with an antibody cocktail made by the biotech company Regeneron. His recovery has prompted him to call for the drug to be made available to all US citizens through an Emergency Use Authorization. However, the safety and effectiveness of the drug have not yet been proven, and there is no way for the President or his doctors to know that the drug had any effect as most people recover from COVID-19.

As the Metro states today: “Trump is just one of 10 people receiving the drug, which is still in the experimental phase and is intended to boost antibodies to fight the infection”. Is it logistically possible to fulfil Trump’s statement and take a drug from small scale testing to Nationwide rollout? In this blog, we unravel a bit of the situation.

What are the options?

There are over 70 different antibody treatments for COVID-19 currently under investigation. In contrast to convalescent serum, monoclonal antibodies (in this case a pair of antibodies developed by Regeneron) are targeted precisely at the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. This approach makes good scientific sense and there are real hopes that it will be effective. Already several groups have published data showing that this biologic treatment can reduce the virus load in the body as well as the time it takes for patients to recover. However, the evidence in patients is very limited and these treatments are still classed as experimental drugs while clinical trials are ongoing.

Biologic Drugs

The development of these types of novel biologics starts with the creation of cells that produce therapeutic antibodies. Through the process of cell expansion, sufficient quantities of cells are then manufactured to supply enough antibodies for testing and support of Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials.

How to scale up?

There are significant challenges with rolling out new biologic drugs, aside from the obvious health risks. Rapidly manufacturing medicine requires physical infrastructure in laboratories, supportive mechanics, bioreactor vessels, filling, packaging and a distribution method.

Stephen Guy, Principal Consultant for Life Sciences states, “Both flask-based and bioreactor technologies are commonly employed for cell expansion, and often the choice depends on the type of cells used. Either way, the physical task of ramping up the production process needs many multiples of any technology and a laboratory supplier list that can fulfill requirements.”

In partnership with Design Momentum, we have been exploring the technology behind new collaborative robots that can automate and semi-automate many of the manual processes presently involved in cell expansion. In addition to speeding up laboratory processes, the robots will remove the difficulties of manually handling heavy consumables during seeding and harvesting. Antibody medicines are exciting in their potential to create novel therapeutics and we are keen to support this endeavour with our innovative technology.

What’s next?

As others have noted, there is a strong argument that it is both bad medicine and bad ethics to give unproven drugs to influential people, when they have not been through appropriate randomised clinical trials. Already people are contacting Regeneron asking to be included in the clinical trials of the drug, and it will be very hard for the FDA to resist calls to fast-track the drug into widespread use. It is worth noting that the Trump administration and Regeneron recently agreed to a $450 million deal to manufacture the drug for public use if Regeneron can get either emergency or full FDA approval.

It is easy to express a desire for something to be done, but the hard work is in the implementation. Investment in new laboratory techniques is required to enable efficient deployment to the general public at scale and within timeframes set by our politicians.

Last Friday Donald Trump was treated with an antibody cocktail made by the biotech company Regeneron. His recovery has prompted him to call for the drug to be made available to all US citizens through an Emergency Use Authorization. However, the safety and effectiveness of the drug have not yet been proven, and there is no way for the President or his doctors to know that the drug had any effect as most people recover from COVID-19.

As the Metro states today: “Trump is just one of 10 people receiving the drug, which is still in the experimental phase and is intended to boost antibodies to fight the infection”. Is it logistically possible to fulfil Trump’s statement and take a drug from small scale testing to Nationwide rollout? In this blog, we unravel a bit of the situation.

What are the options?

There are over 70 different antibody treatments for COVID-19 currently under investigation. In contrast to convalescent serum, monoclonal antibodies (in this case a pair of antibodies developed by Regeneron) are targeted precisely at the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. This approach makes good scientific sense and there are real hopes that it will be effective. Already several groups have published data showing that this biologic treatment can reduce the virus load in the body as well as the time it takes for patients to recover. However, the evidence in patients is very limited and these treatments are still classed as experimental drugs while clinical trials are ongoing.

Biologic Drugs

The development of these types of novel biologics starts with the creation of cells that produce therapeutic antibodies. Through the process of cell expansion, sufficient quantities of cells are then manufactured to supply enough antibodies for testing and support of Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials.

How to scale up?

There are significant challenges with rolling out new biologic drugs, aside from the obvious health risks. Rapidly manufacturing medicine requires physical infrastructure in laboratories, supportive mechanics, bioreactor vessels, filling, packaging and a distribution method.

Stephen Guy, Principal Consultant for Life Sciences states, “Both flask-based and bioreactor technologies are commonly employed for cell expansion, and often the choice depends on the type of cells used. Either way, the physical task of ramping up the production process needs many multiples of any technology and a laboratory supplier list that can fulfill requirements.”

In partnership with Design Momentum, we have been exploring the technology behind new collaborative robots that can automate and semi-automate many of the manual processes presently involved in cell expansion. In addition to speeding up laboratory processes, the robots will remove the difficulties of manually handling heavy consumables during seeding and harvesting. Antibody medicines are exciting in their potential to create novel therapeutics and we are keen to support this endeavour with our innovative technology.

What’s next?

As others have noted, there is a strong argument that it is both bad medicine and bad ethics to give unproven drugs to influential people, when they have not been through appropriate randomised clinical trials. Already people are contacting Regeneron asking to be included in the clinical trials of the drug, and it will be very hard for the FDA to resist calls to fast-track the drug into widespread use. It is worth noting that the Trump administration and Regeneron recently agreed to a $450 million deal to manufacture the drug for public use if Regeneron can get either emergency or full FDA approval.

It is easy to express a desire for something to be done, but the hard work is in the implementation. Investment in new laboratory techniques is required to enable efficient deployment to the general public at scale and within timeframes set by our politicians.

cutting-edge projects here at Plextek including a number of mm-wave designs.

The mm-Wave Antenna Approach

By: James Henderson

Senior Consultant, Antennas & Propagation

25th September 2020

6 minute read

Home » Plextek

Over the past eight years of my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on several different cutting-edge projects here at Plextek including a number of mm-wave designs. These have included both research programmes and product development, covering radar sensors, communication systems, and medical applications. This has given me a great depth of experience into different approaches to meet our customer’s specific requirements. Over this time, I have found that one of the most challenging aspects of working in this frequency range is the integration of mm-wave front-end electronics with an optimised antenna solution, to provide an efficient, and controlled radiation pattern.

Whilst there are many different approaches to a mm-wave antenna design, in my experience, by far the most popular choice for mm-wave applications is some variation of the patch antenna. To me, this is because they are both cheap to produce and surprisingly efficient, albeit over a narrow bandwidth. Whilst there are techniques to improve the bandwidth of the patch antenna, I have personally found that they do not necessarily offer the best performance when compared to alternative approaches.

That said, like all decisions in engineering, the best approach depends on what your priorities are and what you are trying to achieve. For highly cost-sensitive applications, it is difficult to justify a more complex and ultimately more expensive approach if an edge-fed patch antenna will meet your requirements.

A rectangular edge-fed patch antenna, as its name implies, is excited with a signal launched from a microstrip transmission line to one edge of the rectangular element (the element being the specific part of the antenna where radiation occurs). The rectangular element, like the microstrip transmission line, is also over a large ground plane with often a thin microwave dielectric between (a thin microwave dielectric is usually required for the mm-wave electronics to provide a low inductance path to ground). This causes the element to resonate at a specific frequency due to its length, dielectric thickness, and dielectric permittivity. Whilst this thin dielectric enables efficient radiation, this only occurs over a narrow range of frequencies resulting in the element bandwidth being a particularly narrow band. To improve the element match, an inset feed can also be used as shown in the pair of patch elements below.

To increase the gain of the antenna, multiple elements can then be added by feeding the next element in series with a short length of microstrip from the far edge of the first, and so on. This works well providing all the elements radiate in phase with respect to each other. To ensure all the elements radiate in phase, a specific length of microstrip should be used for the required frequency. This causes the series-fed array to also provide a narrow array bandwidth as it relies on a specific wavelength which, over frequency, will inevitably change.

To improve the element bandwidth, a stacked patch is a popular choice. Here, stacking a second patch above the first effectively increases the depth of microwave laminate between the top patch and the ground plane, trading a small amount of efficiency for bandwidth. This approach does, however, have a financial cost associated with it, as multiple layers of expensive microwave dielectric are now required.

To improve the array bandwidth, a feed network which provides an equal electrical line length to each element is often required. This can be achieved through a corporate feed network where the transmission line is split as it feeds all the elements with the same length from the source. An example of this is shown in the 4-element via-fed stacked patch array below.

It is often desirable to increase the gain of an antenna generally to improve the system range, whether it be for a communication or radar system. However, a high-gain antenna is not always advantageous as it essentially directs all the energy in a specific direction, but less in others. To use an analogy it’s like squeezing a balloon, a high-gain antenna can be squeezed such that there is one main lobe where most of the signal (or air in the case of the balloon) is going, but the amount of signal in other directions is reduced. This is fine if this is the intended direction, and for fixed point-to-point communication links this is usually the case. However, in a dynamic system where the direction of radiation needs to change rapidly, an electronically steerable solution is usually required.

Electronically steerable antennas are usually realised in the form of an array of separate elements, like the examples discussed above, but by adjusting the phase of the signal radiating from each can cause the direction of peak gain to change. The challenge, particularly at mm-wave frequencies, is the ability to provide the required phase to each element whilst managing the interaction between nearby elements. This is where, in my opinion, achieving good performance with patch elements becomes challenging as, without careful design, the tightly spaced elements and their feed network can interact. This causes the relative phase between elements and the current distribution across the array to be affected, resulting in a less-than-ideal radiation pattern.

An alternative to the patch element is a radiating slot. A slot in an infinite conductor is considered as the complement to a dipole in free space. A patch antenna is often modeled as two slots side-by-side radiating in phase; this results in an increased element gain for the patch over a thin slot element, but reduced beamwidth. Whilst this allows a patch array to achieve a higher total gain for an array with the same number of elements when compared to a slot array, the reduced beamwidth means a patch array cannot steer over as wider a scan angle.

Another advantage I see with using slot elements in an array is the ability to feed them from waveguide rather than microstrip, or similar transmission lines. The signal is constrained within the waveguide which helps to lower coupling between adjacent transmission lines used to feed nearby elements. This inherent isolation of the feed network helps to achieve a more controlled radiation pattern over wide bandwidths and scan angles. Naturally, however, there is a higher cost associated with a waveguide fed slot array antenna as it tends to require a more complex design and manufacturing process. An example of this can be seen below where an 8 x 10-element slot array (with an additional single 10-element array to one side) is fed from substrate-integrated-waveguide. This has been designed directly onto a multilayer PCB which can support the associated RF front-end electronics.

Designing the antenna directly onto the same PCB as the electronics are usually the most cost-effective approach. Not least does this prevent the need for an additional separate antenna but simplifies the assembly process. However, achieving efficient, wideband antenna performance on a PCB which also contains mm-wave electronics can be very challenging. This is because the electronics tend to require contrasting PCB requirements to the antenna, particularly with respect to the thickness of the PCB dielectric as discussed earlier. Our conference paper and presentation at EuCAP 2020 aims to address this fundamental issue for use in substrate-integrated-waveguide (SIW) fed antenna arrays. The approach presented demonstrated a significant reduction in the insertion loss of substrate-integrated-waveguide using a novel feed approach for a multilayer PCB design.

If further improvement in antenna efficiency and bandwidth is required, particularly for high-gain antennas, the use of a sectoral horn could be considered. Horn antennas are a popular choice for microwave and mm-wave applications because they offer good, predictable performance and their operation can be accurately calculated through well-documented equations. The challenge with using a horn antenna for mm-wave applications is generally feeding the signal into each sectoral horn element. An example where Plextek has implemented a sectoral horn array for an mm-wave radar sensor can be seen on Texas Instrument’s website. This short-range sensor was optimised to achieve a wide coverage using TI’s IWR6843 radar-on-chip device.

Whilst the sectoral horn antenna approach can offer improved bandwidth and efficiency for high-gain elements, it does come at a cost both to manufacture, as it requires an additional component, as well as its larger size and weight. The example below is of a 64-element sectoral horn array.

There are many other solutions to mm-wave antennas such as parabolic reflectors, as used in the development of the FOD radar, but the examples explored in this blog are probably the most relevant to consumer electronics both for communication or short-range radar systems.

I hope that this is both interesting and informative, as to me, the antenna choice is vitally important to any mm-wave design as it dictates a considerable amount of the system around it.

Over the past eight years of my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on several different cutting-edge projects here at Plextek including a number of mm-wave designs. These have included both research programmes and product development, covering radar sensors, communication systems, and medical applications. This has given me a great depth of experience into different approaches to meet our customer’s specific requirements. Over this time, I have found that one of the most challenging aspects of working in this frequency range is the integration of mm-wave front-end electronics with an optimised antenna solution, to provide an efficient, and controlled radiation pattern.

Whilst there are many different approaches to a mm-wave antenna design, in my experience, by far the most popular choice for mm-wave applications is some variation of the patch antenna. To me, this is because they are both cheap to produce and surprisingly efficient, albeit over a narrow bandwidth. Whilst there are techniques to improve the bandwidth of the patch antenna, I have personally found that they do not necessarily offer the best performance when compared to alternative approaches.

That said, like all decisions in engineering, the best approach depends on what your priorities are and what you are trying to achieve. For highly cost-sensitive applications, it is difficult to justify a more complex and ultimately more expensive approach if an edge-fed patch antenna will meet your requirements.

A rectangular edge-fed patch antenna, as its name implies, is excited with a signal launched from a microstrip transmission line to one edge of the rectangular element (the element being the specific part of the antenna where radiation occurs). The rectangular element, like the microstrip transmission line, is also over a large ground plane with often a thin microwave dielectric between (a thin microwave dielectric is usually required for the mm-wave electronics to provide a low inductance path to ground). This causes the element to resonate at a specific frequency due to its length, dielectric thickness, and dielectric permittivity. Whilst this thin dielectric enables efficient radiation, this only occurs over a narrow range of frequencies resulting in the element bandwidth being a particularly narrow band. To improve the element match, an inset feed can also be used as shown in the pair of patch elements below.

To increase the gain of the antenna, multiple elements can then be added by feeding the next element in series with a short length of microstrip from the far edge of the first, and so on. This works well providing all the elements radiate in phase with respect to each other. To ensure all the elements radiate in phase, a specific length of microstrip should be used for the required frequency. This causes the series-fed array to also provide a narrow array bandwidth as it relies on a specific wavelength which, over frequency, will inevitably change.

To improve the element bandwidth, a stacked patch is a popular choice. Here, stacking a second patch above the first effectively increases the depth of microwave laminate between the top patch and the ground plane, trading a small amount of efficiency for bandwidth. This approach does, however, have a financial cost associated with it, as multiple layers of expensive microwave dielectric are now required.

To improve the array bandwidth, a feed network which provides an equal electrical line length to each element is often required. This can be achieved through a corporate feed network where the transmission line is split as it feeds all the elements with the same length from the source. An example of this is shown in the 4-element via-fed stacked patch array below.

It is often desirable to increase the gain of an antenna generally to improve the system range, whether it be for a communication or radar system. However, a high-gain antenna is not always advantageous as it essentially directs all the energy in a specific direction, but less in others. To use an analogy it’s like squeezing a balloon, a high-gain antenna can be squeezed such that there is one main lobe where most of the signal (or air in the case of the balloon) is going, but the amount of signal in other directions is reduced. This is fine if this is the intended direction, and for fixed point-to-point communication links this is usually the case. However, in a dynamic system where the direction of radiation needs to change rapidly, an electronically steerable solution is usually required.

Electronically steerable antennas are usually realised in the form of an array of separate elements, like the examples discussed above, but by adjusting the phase of the signal radiating from each can cause the direction of peak gain to change. The challenge, particularly at mm-wave frequencies, is the ability to provide the required phase to each element whilst managing the interaction between nearby elements. This is where, in my opinion, achieving good performance with patch elements becomes challenging as, without careful design, the tightly spaced elements and their feed network can interact. This causes the relative phase between elements and the current distribution across the array to be affected, resulting in a less-than-ideal radiation pattern.

An alternative to the patch element is a radiating slot. A slot in an infinite conductor is considered as the complement to a dipole in free space. A patch antenna is often modeled as two slots side-by-side radiating in phase; this results in an increased element gain for the patch over a thin slot element, but reduced beamwidth. Whilst this allows a patch array to achieve a higher total gain for an array with the same number of elements when compared to a slot array, the reduced beamwidth means a patch array cannot steer over as wider a scan angle.

Another advantage I see with using slot elements in an array is the ability to feed them from waveguide rather than microstrip, or similar transmission lines. The signal is constrained within the waveguide which helps to lower coupling between adjacent transmission lines used to feed nearby elements. This inherent isolation of the feed network helps to achieve a more controlled radiation pattern over wide bandwidths and scan angles. Naturally, however, there is a higher cost associated with a waveguide fed slot array antenna as it tends to require a more complex design and manufacturing process. An example of this can be seen below where an 8 x 10-element slot array (with an additional single 10-element array to one side) is fed from substrate-integrated-waveguide. This has been designed directly onto a multilayer PCB which can support the associated RF front-end electronics.

Designing the antenna directly onto the same PCB as the electronics are usually the most cost-effective approach. Not least does this prevent the need for an additional separate antenna but simplifies the assembly process. However, achieving efficient, wideband antenna performance on a PCB which also contains mm-wave electronics can be very challenging. This is because the electronics tend to require contrasting PCB requirements to the antenna, particularly with respect to the thickness of the PCB dielectric as discussed earlier. Our conference paper and presentation at EuCAP 2020 aims to address this fundamental issue for use in substrate-integrated-waveguide (SIW) fed antenna arrays. The approach presented demonstrated a significant reduction in the insertion loss of substrate-integrated-waveguide using a novel feed approach for a multilayer PCB design.

If further improvement in antenna efficiency and bandwidth is required, particularly for high-gain antennas, the use of a sectoral horn could be considered. Horn antennas are a popular choice for microwave and mm-wave applications because they offer good, predictable performance and their operation can be accurately calculated through well-documented equations. The challenge with using a horn antenna for mm-wave applications is generally feeding the signal into each sectoral horn element. An example where Plextek has implemented a sectoral horn array for an mm-wave radar sensor can be seen on Texas Instrument’s website. This short-range sensor was optimised to achieve a wide coverage using TI’s IWR6843 radar-on-chip device.

Whilst the sectoral horn antenna approach can offer improved bandwidth and efficiency for high-gain elements, it does come at a cost both to manufacture, as it requires an additional component, as well as its larger size and weight. The example below is of a 64-element sectoral horn array.

There are many other solutions to mm-wave antennas such as parabolic reflectors, as used in the development of the FOD radar, but the examples explored in this blog are probably the most relevant to consumer electronics both for communication or short-range radar systems.

I hope that this is both interesting and informative, as to me, the antenna choice is vitally important to any mm-wave design as it dictates a considerable amount of the system around it.