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This month we’re talking to electronics engineer Ashley Robinson, our Near Field Communications (NFC) expert.

Why did you join Cambridge Design Partnership?

CDP were recommended to me as a smart career choice.  I was very impressed when I arrived, even during the interview CDP appeared to be a really fun place to work and their showcase of projects exhibited a very broad skillset.  The thought of working on such diverse projects is what attracted me.

What background do you come from and how do apply this knowledge to your current role?

I gained an MEng in Electronic Engineering with Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the University of Southampton and in a placement position worked for a multinational Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) design house. I was heavily involved in Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, developing new chips for smart phones and mobile devices. This technology is used for contactless payments, either using a dedicated card or increasingly, a mobile device. It’s really interesting being part of the processes that roll out new technologies like this in high volume consumer applications.  My general electronics skills have been employed in designing and building both digital and analogue circuits and for a number of projects I’ve worked on the embedded software.

What interesting projects are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished a technology demonstrator for a novel NFC application.  We're pushing existing NFC devices to create new levels of functionality that use communication capabilities in interesting ways whilst being extremely low power and low cost solutions. Power budgets are so low energy that energy harvesting solutions have become not only possible but a practical proposition. But that’s as much as I can say!

In the future I think this technology could be used invisibly alongside other wireless technologies to simplify usability, helping to pair devices automatically for example.

What do you see as the hot trends in your area at the moment and what is coming up in the future?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is currently the big buzz word in electronics but currently lacks the infrastructure to fulfill its potential. This field needs a lot of investment to create a robust platform from which we can create scalable implementations with mainstream appeal.

I have a particular interest in AI because it provides a solution to an opportunity that IoT creates. Autonomous data collection from IoT devices is useless without autonomous data processing. For example, if every passenger on the national rail network shares their current location and intended destination then we have everything we need to optimally control the movement of carriages, staff at stations and so on but we need a solution that operates in real-time and makes sense of this ‘big data’. 

So AI is the top-down solution but the bottom-up implementation is very challenging. Collecting the required data, especially that on human behaviour, is often difficult.  The lack of reliable power where the sources of data are located and the need to create small, robust and connected devices prove an enormous challenge.  Solutions include System on Chip (SoC) Integrated Circuits (ICs), wearable technology and ultra-low volume M2M (Machine to Machine) mobile data plans.

If you had the time, what subject would you like to study?

I would study evolutionary biology. At university we spent time discussing how we can use the diversity of life on earth as a model to write better optimization algorithms. Often we drifted towards evolutionary biology which left some interesting questions. Why has complexity of species only increased since the dawn of life? What is the exact origin of self replicators? If sexual reproduction is so good why does asexual reproduction keep appearing in the tree of life? I would love to find time to study these questions and explore this topic further.

Hopefully one day I can find an application that will be useful to my work at CDP!

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