The Connected World

Wireless Technology at TU/e

During the past 50 years an explosive growth spurt within electrical engineering has radically altered our lives. Society has become dependent on the products produced by electrical engineering – in fact, no other discipline has had such an impact. The next 50 years will see even more radical changes in areas such as communications, healthcare, energy supply, mobility and production automation.

In view of these developments, the Department of Electrical Engineering has identified three areas of research with high societal relevance:

  • The Connected World (Developments in Communication)
  • Smart and Sustainable Society (Working Toward a Sustainable Society)
  • Care and Cure (Electrical Engineering in the Healthcare Sector)

The department’s employees and students have achieved resounding successes in close collaboration with industry and social partners in each of these research fields.

This interview focuses on The Connected World. We talk to three key employees associated with the Centre for Wireless Technology, which specializes in new  technologies that will provide power for and speed up communication. They are Professor Marion Matters-Kammerer (Mixed-signal microelectronics group), Assistant Professor Georgios Exarchakos (Electro-optical communication) and PhD candidate Robbert Schulpen (Electromagnetics).

What is unique about the research carried out by TU/e?

Marion: The rather successful combination of government-funded fundamental research and applied science. I spent 11 years in applied research at Philips before coming to TU/e. My work here, terahertz electronics for imaging and spectroscopy, is far more fundamental in nature, but you always have possible applications in mind due to the TU/e’s close links with industry. Terahertz electronics is still in its infancy, but the potential is huge. Obtaining government funding is much easier if you can point to clear commercial and societal benefits.

Georgios: TU/e helps industry innovate in the areas of data science, wireless technologies, devices, optical communications and software. That scope is tremendous and, when you combine all those disciplines, you can basically offer a toolbox for revolutionizing the Internet of Things, which is my specific area of interest. I would say Eindhoven and the TU/e are pretty unique in that respect.

Robbert: My area of research, millimeter wave channel sounding, is of direct interest to and partly funded by KPN, the largest telecom provider in the Netherlands. This work prepares the way for a 5G network. Very much applied science and not so theoretical, but definitely of high societal value. Just another facet of TU/e’s broad range of capabilities.

What exciting research projects have you worked on during the past 12 months or so?

Marion: We developed the first wireless temperature sensor that uses radio waves as its power source. In other words, it doesn’t need a battery. In layman’s terms: you send energy wirelessly to a piece of silicon, which stores that energy briefly, uses it to measure temperature and then sends a value back. The science behind that simple statement is amazing: the chip is just 2 square millimeters in size and its circuitry includes an antenna. It sources energy from the radio waves in the wireless network to which it is connected. When enough energy has been accumulated, it activates,  measures the temperature and sends the reading back to the router. This is only possible at very high frequencies. It will be used in smart buildings initially, but the same technology can also be used in payment systems, wireless identification systems and production engineering applications. The sensors only cost a few cents. This was a joint effort that involved the Electromagnetics and Signal Processing Systems group at TU/e, as well as the Centre for Wireless Technology. The Mixed-Signal Microelectronics group was responsible for the integrated circuits research.

Georgios: We succeeded in controlling the resources in a low-power network far more efficiently by developing an algorithm based on swarm intelligence. The algorithm leads to adaptive behavior based on trial and error; i.e. what works? And what doesn’t work? A simple concept that we see in  nature and that will revolutionize many technological areas. On a similar note, we also developed an algorithm that identifies and protects the strongest nodes in a network. Important, because this means that the network itself becomes aware of the nodes that need to be protected. If you reverse the thought process, you can also develop an algorithm that can identify the minimum number of nodes you need to eliminate in order to destroy a network. Useful for military applications and responding to epidemics.

Robbert: We are still in the very early phases. The goal is to find a way of characterizing the dynamics of a millimeter wave channel by performing a range of measurements. Once you have the data, you can build models that allow you to predict aspects such as signal quality and the influence of  moving users on the channel. The models can be used by businesses to answer questions like how many base stations are required in Eindhoven and where should they be located to ensure full coverage. 

Deeply satisfying work by the sounds of it. What developments do you see in three years’ time?

Marion: We will successfully combine photonics and electronics. We are already skilled in both areas and further fundamental research into this combination will deliver innovative products in the mid-term. For example: we will be able to transmit more data through an optical fiber, data centers – which consume power voraciously – will become more efficient, and we will start to apply terahertz technology. The key to all these developments is a high-speed photodiode that converts light to an electrical signal. The ingredients are already there: some research has been done and we have a
strategy for the technical challenges.

Georgios: Refining the existing algorithm we have come up with. It needs to be made evolution-capable and universalized so that it can be applied in all networks, not just low-power networks.

Robbert: I hope to have a system that allows me to perform the measurements I require. Some systems are already commercially available, but they measure statically and that is a limiting factor. My system will be dynamic. Calibration is the key and we may need to develop our own measurement equipment. The other area where I predict a breakthrough is MIMO – Multiple Input, Multiple Output. This is an existing method for multiplying the capacity of a radio link using multiple transmit and receive antennas to exploit multipath propagation. Upping the frequency will allow us to use
much smaller antenna units and increase throughput significantly, because multiple signal paths can be used to transmit data.

TU/e’s contribution in these areas is outstanding. Would you recommend TU/e to other academics looking for a research position?

Marion: Definitely. TU/e differs from many other universities in that it offers tenure tracks for assistant professors as the first position in an academic career. This gives young and talented scientists a clear perspective: they can follow a defined development route that leads to a full (associate)  professorship. The Department of Electrical Engineering also treats its employees well and encourages teamwork. And that close link to industry means that funding is readily available.

Georgios: I came here from Greece and followed exactly that tenure track, so I thoroughly endorse Marion’s comment. I really enjoy the collaborative environment here and the connection to industry. Surprisingly enough, some of the companies we work with look further than business models and applications: they are also interested in pure research!

Robbert: I studied at TU/e, did my BSc and MSc here, so I know Eindhoven like the back of my hand. The city not only has a fantastic buzz, the university is also ideally situated with Brainport next door. New York was another possibility that I considered for my PhD, but the guarantee of funding made TU/e the better choice.

What unresolved question or dream inspires you?

Marion: Terahertz research is brand-new. You can compare it to the initial discovery of UV light or infra-red light. So the big question is: what can we do with it? My initial dream is a fully equipped lab at TU/e, specifically for this area of research. We have put in the application and are very optimistic! And who knows, maybe there will be a spin-off at some stage in the future.

Georgios: My dream is a future-proof Internet of Things. Creating algorithms to control our networks/life in cyberspace without having to make hardware changes all the time. So we are designing for the unknown! 

Robbert: People and devices are increasingly going to be connected to each other wirelessly in the future. I see myself working on projects that will ensure efficient connection and guarantee the data rates and capacity we need.