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Could the NPL be the good referee that helps the IT industry’s game?

The National Physics Laboratory might have a role to play in keeping the IT industry on track explains Nick Booth

As part of the government’s official Industrial Strategy, it is relaunching the National Physical Laboratory, the measurment institute for the UK. Britain’s digital industries should be the biggest benefactors. But how much use will the NPL be?

The aim is to boost our economy by £55bn by 2020 by taking full advantage of money spinning technologies like big data, 5G, quantum devices and graphene.

How will NPL advance the cause of industry? On the principle that you can only successfully manage what you can monitor, one of the primary goals is to take a much more measured approach to developing 5G networks than we did with earlier generations of mobile networks.

Our 3G and 4G networks were hurriedly installed without the relevant measurement infrastructure and standards in place. As a result there was no traceable way of proving a connection, which created massive inefficiencies and stifled development. It’s crucial this fiasco isn’t repeated with 5G, a schemer which presents so many more new chances for us to miss.

The NPL is heading the Met5G project to develop and test new infrastructure, signals and all the real-world practicalities that weren’t taken into account in earlier generations.

Britain has a history of inventing things - from football to the iPhone - and watching other countries take over and exploit the benefits. The problem with refereeing by government agencies is that they often think the game is all about them. British engineer Andrew Fentem came up with the visual display concept used in the iPhone, years before Apple got the idea. But his development ambitions were killed by a UK government quango. The men in black promised to help but ended up giving away penalties.

Graphene is the latest major invention that is accredited to British academics that promises to boost everyone else’s economy. As a government agency, NPL aims to help British innovators by providing the support it does best, creating the right environment for development work, without getting involved. In the case of graphene, it aims to create the right conditions for the writing of new applications, lower manufacturing costs and encouraging industrial scale use of the technology. The best way it can do this is by publishing standards by which everything can be regulated, so that there’s less work for UK inventors to do when they develop the new computer chips, smart sensors and health applications that are potentially possible. NPL is about to publish is first ISO standard for Graphene.

The same type of support is being offered by the new Advanced Quantum Metrology Laboratory, which aims to catalyse the development of Quantum-based devices and networks. By providing ultra-stable environmental conditions required for precision science, it should validate the powerful computing platforms needed for industries like navigation, energy and security.

Big data is identified as another booming area in need of foundations. As is the Internet of things. The lack of standardisatoin of data (how it’s stored and how its verified) means that companies waste 90 per cent of the information they have available. By standardising the way it’s handled, NPL could hand UK companies a massive lead - if only temporarily.

Arguably NPL’s greatest achievement could be in synchronising every connected machine across the globe, through its time measurement systems. Blockchain can never provide its omnipotent view of global financial trading if every computer has a different time stamp. NPL, which invented the world’s most accurate time keeper in the 1950s, the caesium atomic clock, can detail each second of the day to fourteen decimal places. It already ‘distributes’ its version of the time across the world, so that all users of distributed ledger - from stock trading systems of satellites - are synchronised to the same degree.

The synchronisation of NPL’s atomic clock in Teddington with platforms across the globe is entirely dependent on comms links, such as Fibre. In order to provide a more localised source of verification, NPL has developed a miniaturised atomic clock, synchronised to the same level of accuracy, so users get the same precision without the vulnerability of a comms link.

How do we benchmark the NPL? Not by recognition. I’m guessing you’ve never heard of it. I only know it because it’s on my door step but it’s so mysterious even the local paper doesn’t mention it, let alone the national press. It’s Teddington’s own Institute in the Room, which everyone sees but nobody talks about.

“I was the head of technology at the Ministry of Defence and I’d never heard of this place before I came here,” admits Neil Stansfield, Head of Digital at NPL.

Still, does that matter? A good referee is one that keeps the game moving and nobody notices. By imposing standards and regulation, the NPL fulfills that function. If you are any kinds of IT player, it’s definitely worth getting your name in its book.

 

This was last published in October 2017

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