Tech of the future… and the British boffins building it

Self-driving cars, robots at home and super-superfast broadband are on the horizon.

We reveal what new technology to expect, when it will arrive, and the British scientists behind it.

Mancunian magic material: Graphene

Graphene is an extraordinary man-made material that takes the form of a sheet of carbon atoms bonded together in a flat honeycomb mesh. Such a sheet can be as wide and as long as you like, but it will have the thickness of a single atom – leading some scientists to describe graphene as a “two-dimensional” material.

The possibility of graphene was first theorised in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, working at the University of Manchester, succeeded in producing it in a lab – an achievement for which they shared a Nobel Prize. Researchers are now working to put graphene into industrial production, which could be only a few years away.


Graphene sheets are effectively transparent, but they’re extremely strong – graphene is 200 times stronger than steel; they’re also very flexible and exceptionally good conductors of electrical current and heat. Once graphene becomes widely available, it has the potential to transform many technologies, and several British universities now have dedicated research centres focusing on the production and applications of the so-called “wonder material”.

Researchers at Cambridge Graphene Centre have been working with Nokia to produce flexible, transparent displays in which both the LED and touch-sensing layers are made from graphene. Such screens would be hard-wearing, energy-efficient and almost weightless, making them ideal for wearable devices and smart packaging.

BT’s flexible, alien broadband

How fast is superfast? BT’s latest broadband trial has topped 1.4Tbits/sec, which is enough juice to download 44 HD films in a second.
More impressive than the speed itself is the fact that BT and Alcatel-Lucent achieved it using standard, commercial hardware on the existing fibre infrastructure. The research partners used a flexible grid called a “flexgrid” – not everything hi-tech needs a clever name – that shrinks the gaps between transmission channels, boosting how much data can be sent at a certain bandwidth.

That gap is normally 50GHz, but the trial cut it to 35GHz, raising transmission efficiency by 42.5%.

To hit such epic speeds, the researchers combined seven 200Gbits/sec channels over the top of BT’s existing network, turning it into an “alien super channel” (now there’s a name with a sci-fi feel).
The system is still being trialled on a line between the BT Tower and BT’s Adastral Park lab in Suffolk, so consumers won’t be overdosing on HD films in the near future. That said, the fact the alien super channel flexgrid allows BT to boost capacity without laying new fibre means you can expect it to come into use sooner rather than later.

Ticket to ride: self-driving cars

Let’s play a word-association game. We say “self-driving cars”; you say “Google” – unless you study or work at the University of Oxford, in which case you might say “RobotCar”.

robot car

RobotCar could turn your car into a self-driving machine for as little as £100. The car’s computer “learns” the terrain it drives through – buildings, streets and other landmarks – using a pair of cameras and an array of lasers. When it recognises the route it’s driving, it can volunteer to take control of the wheel.

“Since our cities don’t change very quickly, robotic vehicles will know and look out for familiar structures as they pass by, so that they can ask a human driver, ‘I know this route, do you want me to drive?’ and the driver can choose to let the technology take over,” says Professor Paul Newman, one of the key minds behind the project.

What about cyclists, pedestrians and other cars? The system scans ahead 13 times a second, and can detect obstacles up to 50 metres away. If the car senses an obstacle, it applies the brakes, a process made comparatively simple by modern cars’ reliance on computer control. “These days, cars are pretty much fly-by-wire – the computer controls it all,” says Newman.

A trio of computers makes all this possible. The concentrated computing comes courtesy of the main vehicle computer (MVC), which sits in the boot. This compares what the cameras and lasers see with the stored 3D map built up from previous trips – or pre-stored in its database – and makes decisions on what the car needs to do. The low-level controller (LLC) connects with the car’s computer systems to enable this to actually happen, while the user interface comes in the form of an iPad.

A message saying “Car able to take control” flashes up, which the driver then chooses to accept or not. Similarly to cruise control, a tap on the brake pedal restores control to the driver.

So far, the system has been fitted to Nissan LEAF cars that are free to roam on the private roads of an Oxford science park, and the cars have hit speeds of up to 40mph in driverless mode. The team is now working on artificial intelligence that would enable the car to make its own decision on which route to take based on traffic flow.

“While our technology won’t be in a car showroom near you any time soon, and there’s lots more work to do, it shows the potential for this kind of affordable robotic system that could make our car journeys safer, more efficient, and more pleasant for drivers,” says Newman. “I would be astounded if we don’t see this kind of technology in cars within 15 years.”

Next, next-generation network: 5G

4G has only just arrived, but real strides have already been made for its successor, 5G.

One of the projects with the most potential is a £35 million team-up of the University of Surrey, King’s College London and the Technical University of Dresden in Germany. For the past two years, these three universities have built a 4km test bed with speeds of up to 1Gbit/sec, a huge increase over even EE’s 60Mbits/sec 4G – let alone the mobile download speeds most of us see.

By opening up this test bed to students and local companies, project leader Professor Rahim Tafazolli hopes to benefit from their differing network requirements and develop a “really advanced, energy-efficient, health-efficient, high-capacity programme for 5G”.

Tafazolli told PC Pro that his research focuses on orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), a new data-encoding technique, and also looks at exploiting the information held in signal interference, expanding the range of spectrum bands that’s useful for data.

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