NPL relaunches with new focus on measurements to support the UK's digital industries

The national measuring institute is leading an EU project to develop and test new infrastructure and signals for 5G


The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK's official measuring institute, has relaunched this month with a new digital focus.

The 115-year-old laboratory is testing and validating emerging technologies such as quantum devices and 5G connectivity, and will be supporting industry to give companies a competitive edge and faster time-to-market for their products.

© National Physical Laboratory (NPL)
© National Physical Laboratory (NPL)

It aims to strengthen a domestic digital economy that was worth $817 billion (£603 billion) in 2016, according to research conducted by Accenture Strategy and Oxford Economics. The figure represents a 31 percent share of total GDP.

The report estimates that the UK could add $84 billion (£62 billion) to its GDP by 2020 if it maximised its resources to develop digital technology.

The measurements involved in developing and running those technologies could make a difference worth billions of pounds.

"If we can embed that measurement into those processes, so that measurement is at the point of origin and the point of need, then that will increase our confidence in the decisions that we make and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the process," said Neil Stansfield, NPL's head of digital.

This could mean improving the quality of signals used in smart grids and smart cities, providing higher quality data for new healthcare technologies, optimising the ergonomics of factories, or harnessing the power of the 20 billion interconnected devices Gartner predicts will be in operation by the end of this decade.

NPL is uniquely well-suited to these tasks. The facility is the largest applied physics laboratory in the country. Its status as a taxpayer-funded organisation adds independence to its work and has helped it to develop a set of facilities and skills that wouldn’t be viable in the commercial sector.

The institute houses 388 hi-tech laboratories and more than 500 scientists in its headquarters in Bushy Park, south-west London. It also operates regional bases across the country, such as those at the University of Cambridge and the University of Huddersfield's 3M Buckley Innovation Centre.

Stansfield divides the NPL strategy into three core pillars: strengthening collection of data through understanding and calibrating the underlying infrastructure and inputs; connecting the correct elements of that data to the appropriate recipient; and comprehending that data so it can better inform decision-making.

He describes much of their work as "application agnostic".

"We're measuring at the point of need, not measuring at the point of production," he said.

This allows them to tailor the services they offer to the requirements of specific sectors and companies. They can embed measurement into every aspect of the process to maximise the efficiency of the production process and the resulting product's performance. They both approach companies and sectors directly to identify their needs and respond to those companies that come to them independently.

Setting the standard for 5G

NPL unveiled a variety of new programmes designed to boost the UK digital sector during an open day arranged to promote its relaunch.

They range from drop-testing phone cases, to developing the first international standard on graphene, which would cut production costs and increase commercialisation of the world's thinnest material for use in miniaturised electronics, from high-speed computer chips to bionic implants.

NPL is also leading an EU-wide project to develop and test new infrastructure and signals for fifth-generation mobile networks called Metrology for 5G Communications (MET5G).

5G brings a number of new technical challenges. It will operate over a wider range of frequencies, has to overcome EU interoperability issues and requires a higher efficiency and more simultaneous connects than current mobile networks.

The MET5G project aims to give the EU's 5G communications industry a competitive edge over its rivals and reduce the time-to-market of products and services.

NPL also wants to avoid the mistakes made in the rollout of 3G and 4G. Both were deployed before any measurement infrastructure or standards had been established. Instead, they had to be reverse engineered into the technology, at a greater cost.

They test the function and efficiency of 5G antennas in anechoic chambers lined with polyurethane spikes, which reduce the effect of electromagnetic waves. These are purpose-built to measure how much the antenna concentrates energy in a given direction, to observe signal blackspots and predict what they need to provide signal coverage.

Once the testing is complete, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will define the 5G frequency rate, before 5G products start to be rolled out in 2020.

Quantum technology and atomic clocks

The NPL has also formed an Advanced Quantum Metrology Laboratory (AQML) to accelerate the development of quantum-based devices and networks.

The AQML facilities provide ultra-stable environmental conditions for precision testing and validation conducted by the NPL's roster of more than 100 quantum experts employed by the NPL, a greater number than are working in many European states.

Other NPL staff will be measuring the performance of a variety of biometrics. They can check the error rates and anti-spoof ability of commercial applications that authenticate an individual's finger, voice, face, iris, or palm, and more experimental forms such as gait recognition and electrocardiogram (ECG), which assesses electrical currents generated by a beating heart.

NPL is also building on its world-leading reputation for providing precision clock accuracy. In 1955, the organisation unveiled the world’s first caesium atomic clock, which led to a new internationally agreed definition of a second.

Atomic time continues to grow more accurate and reliable. Today, it supports Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) satellites, mobile communications, energy supplies and computer systems, and can ensure compliance with new EU laws requiring financial trading events to be traceable to a 100-microsecond level.

NPL History

NPL was formally opened on 19 March 1902 by the then-Prince of Wales. "I believe that in the National Physical Laboratory we have the first instance of the state taking part in scientific research," said the future King George V in his inauguration speech.

"The object of the scheme is, I understand, to bring scientific knowledge to bear practically upon our everyday industrial and commercial life, to break down the barrier between theory and practice, to effect a union between science and commerce."

Many of Britain's most celebrated scientists have passed through the NPL’s doors since then, including Alan Turing, Donald Davies and Louis Essen.

In January 2015, it returned to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) ownership, after a twenty-year spell of being privately operated by Serco.

The new arrangement brings NPL greater influence on government priorities and policies such as the 5G and digital strategies. NPL led the development of the new UK Measurement Strategy, which will help optimise industrial processes and improve the productivity of the UK digital sector.

NPL may have maintained the UK’s measurement standards for more than a century, but it remains a hidden treasure for the general public and much of the digital sector. The relaunch hopes to change that. And with its renewed ties to government helping it to align strategies to the needs of the state and industry, NPL could be better placed than ever to achieve the objective first described by the Prince of Wales in 1902.

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