Some of the most influential and life changing technologies from the past two decades have been in the field of digital communications.
Dr O’Sullivan describes the wireless LAN “as a glorious example” of blue-sky research solving a problem with much wider application. The phenomenal growth in mobile technology, from phones to laptops to game-consoles, would not have been possible without the vision of this radio astronomer.
To transfer lots of data quickly without cables, it needs to be divided into small portions and transmitted on many different radio frequencies simultaneously, and then re-assembled in the right order by the receiver. When radio signals bounce off walls and floors, or when they interfere, they make the receiver’s job very much harder. Dr O’Sullivan’s research into the technology required to screen out galactic noise in radio astronomy was just what was needed to help make sense of WLAN signals here on earth.
Originally developed for military use in the late 1970s, GPS technology can now be found in all walks of life. GPS provides navigation for aeroplanes, ships, cars and individuals on the go via GPS-enabled mobile phones.
The proliferation of GPS technology in everyday life received a major boost from powerful chipsets, invented by American engineers Sanjai Kohli and Steven Chen at US-company SiRF in San Jose. Prior to this invention, GPS navigation - based on establishing a geographic position via feedback from a satellite - was expensive and faced severe limitations: early GPS receivers could only function properly with at least three or four satellites in range. If only one of these satellite signals became blocked, the receivers failed to navigate. The GPS system designed by Kohli and Chen can “fill in the blanks” by referring to alternative sources when satellite signals are down. As a result, they can operate with only one satellite in range.
Our technology effectively changed the way people navigate their lives. It allowed for substantially lower-cost communications systems by dramatically increasing signal processing capabilities. GPS navigation in cellular phones and personal navigation devices was just one of the obvious benefits, but it also laid the groundwork for the advent of modern high data rate and broadband communication systems such as Wi-fF and 3G cell-phone networks.
Working in the mobile phone division of Ericsson in the mid-1990s, Dutch engineer Jaap Haartsen found a revolutionary way to connect electronic gadgets to each other at short range without the use of cables, using a variety of low-power radio frequencies. Now used in more than two billion devices worldwide, Bluetooth has changed not only the way electronic devices connect with each other, but also how people connect and communicate.
In 1994, I was tasked with finding solutions for short-range radio connections, at distances of around 3m to 4m. The company was looking for a way to enrich the functionality of the mobile phones, which would act as enabler for new sales.
The first mobile phones with Bluetooth appeared in 2000, as did first PC cards and prototype mice, keyboards and USB dongles. By 2011 the number of Bluetooth Special Interest group members had grown to over 15,000 firms.
In the 1980s at Acorn Computers in Cambridge, Sophie Wilson programmed the BBC Basic operating system – one of the first for micro-computers – that sold more than 1.5 million units and inspired a generation of programmers. Wilson went on to develop Acorn's first RISC Machine (ARM) chip. The powerful, yet energy-efficient ARM processor has proved perfect for today’s mobile devices where battery life is critical. In 2011, ARM-based chips powered 95% of smartphones, 40% of digital TVs and set-top boxes, and a staggering 7 billion ARM chips are sold every year.