Focus on research: Dr Brendan Jennings, Connect

Dr Brendan Jennings, Connect
Dr Brendan Jennings, Connect

The interim centre director discusses the 'network effects' of Covid-19

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8 June 2020 | 0

Dr Brendan Jennings is interim director of Connect, the Science Foundation Ireland centre for future networks and communications. In this interview he discusses the pace of change during the Covid-19 pandemic.

SFI centre directors tend to have had a circuitous route to their positions. What was yours?

For me it has been a relatively straight road. I did my undergraduate degree in Electronic Engineering in DCU and when I finished in the early 90s I stayed on to do a PhD in telecommunications networks. I was lucky to get lots of great opportunities during my time in DCU, including coordinating a European Commission funded international research project at the tender age of 25.

After my PhD I spent two years working as a software engineer for Openet, where I learned a huge amount about how communications networks are built and operated.

 

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A desire to get back to academia led me to joining the TSSG research centre in Waterford IT in 2003. In TSSG I have been incredibly lucky to work with many, many brilliant students and researchers.

Our team was involved in Connect from the centre’s creation in 2015 and we have completed joint research projects with Connect partner companies including Cisco, Huawei, IBM, Intel, and Routematch.

Earlier this year, when Connect’s previous director, Prof Luiz Da Silva, moved back to the US, I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to take on the role on an interim basis.

I’m especially proud to be the first person from the Institute of Technology sector to lead one of the 16 SFI research centres.

Crises have a way of accelerating the pace of innovation. What technologies do you think have really proven their value over the past few months?

For the past three months I have been doing four, five, or more meetings a day over video conferencing from my kitchen in rural Co. Waterford, so clearly, for many people collaboration technologies like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have become essential, to both our work and our social lives.

Where I live, I unfortunately don’t have fibre broadband, but I am fortunate that the 4G network coverage is just sufficient to meet our needs. The pandemic shows how central network connectivity has become to all our lives.

Beyond that, I have been impressed by how quickly Irish companies, in particular, have repurposed their technology to help in the fight against Covid. For example Taoglas have an interesting solution for real-time monitoring of social distancing in the workplace, whilst Ordee have a solution that helps leisure and hospitality businesses comply with Covid-19 guidelines.

Conversely, has the pandemic shown up the limitations of commonly used communications and network technologies?

What is interesting to me is how a requirement that previously had not been given much thought – monitoring how far apart people stay from each other has suddenly become centrally important to public health and to the rebooting of the economy. The use of Bluetooth, present on the majority of mobile handsets, is a brilliant example of technology being used for something completely different to anything its inventors had foreseen. The idea is simple: compare the strength of the signal when it was transmitted from one phone with the strength of the signal when the message was received by a nearby phone, and use the difference to make an estimate of the distance between the sending and receiving mobile device.

It is a very creative solution to a real problem, but so far the jury is somewhat out as to how successful the apps using this approach can be in accurately estimating this distance.

Connect researchers are currently undertaking independent testing of the approach in a range of real-world usage scenarios, such as in a supermarket queue, or on a bus or train. We are sharing our results with colleagues internationally and feeding our results back to the Department of Health and the HSE.

We are delighted to be able to make this contribution to ensuring that the Irish contact tracing app performs as well as it possibly can.

ICC2020, one of the world’s leading communications conferences, was to have been taking place in Dublin this week. Instead, it will take place online. As executive chair of the event, what emerging tech trends are you noticing?

ICC is attended by a research-focussed community and we are looking at the networking technologies that will not see deployment until five to 10 years from now. So we will be spending most of the week talking about what will be introduced in 6G, and beyond 6G.

Lots of researchers will be talking about millimetre wave, TeraHertz communications, and application areas including self-driving cars, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

However, what I am most looking forward to the keynote talk on Wednesday afternoon from Connect’s own Prof. Linda Doyle, who will outline her view that we need to radically re-think our approach to the design of communications networks.

Given the fresh interest in video conferencing apps, are we going to see VR as a natural addition to the ‘new world of work’ toolkit?

I think it is clear that remote working will become much more accepted, so there will be a lot of investment in improving collaboration tools.

Like many people I know, I find that participating in virtual meetings is somehow far more draining than meeting in person. Indeed, I even find myself missing the short walks between different meeting rooms.

Virtual Reality is definitely a very promising avenue to create a new working environment, but hopefully the focus will be on creating a better environment rather than just re-creating the offices of old.

Certainly, widespread deployment of 5G networks will require a solid business model, and VR-based work environments have, due to the pandemic, jumped to the top of the list of applications that could generate demand.

For 5G, I think that networks’ improved technical capabilities in terms of increased bandwidth and lower, predictable latency are almost of less importance than the new business models that will evolve to support their deployment – the idea of a ‘new operator’ that is much more flexible in its approach is something we are starting to explore in Connect.

SpaceX recently launched satellites as part of its Starlink global broadband initiative. Are programmes of this scale likely to become the norm or will we see more work being done on localised solutions?

I think we will see both. In many ways space has become the most exciting frontier for communications networks, with the Starlink initiative being a good example of what is possible. But communications is only part of what is called Space 4.0 – the idea that we are evolving from Space being the preserve of a small number of governments, to a domain in which there is a diverse set of actors, including not only private companies like SpaceX, but also academia, industry and even individual citizens.

The cost of launching small CubeSats (miniature satellites of only 10cm in length in Low Earth Orbit) is falling sharply, meaning that it is within reach to deploy a constellation of satellites that perhaps communicate with each other to perform specific Earth Observation functions.

In effect, the democratisation of Space is not far away, and it is my hope that we in Connect, and the Irish community more broadly, will be able to do something innovative in this area in the coming years.

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