What placed Ireland at the forefront of the digital age?

16 Feb 2017

Image: pingebat/Shutterstock

Meet Tony Fagan, the UCD professor of electrical and electronic engineering that helped to create an Irish cottage industry at the cutting edge of the digital age.

Digital signal processing, DSP, Tony Fagan

Digital Signal Processing (DSP) is a discipline crucial to the modern world of high-speed communications, the internet, multimedia content and modern medical imaging.

It is behind everything from MP3 players to smart kettles, positioned as one of the most important aspects of an internet of things (IoT) evolution.

At a basic, rudimentary level, it is the infrastructure and software that allows audio to be received, processed and converted into digital data.

Ireland chips in for Digital Signal Processing

For a brief moment in the 1980s, DSP was an area that Ireland excelled in.

Dublin was home to the first ever high-speed modem based on a single DSP chip. Rival attempts from around the world were using six chips that needed a huge power supply.

Irish researchers had a really neat solution, with Prof Tony Fagan, professor of electrical and electronic engineering in University College Dublin (UCD), at the fore.

“Yes, that modem came out of my lab,” said Fagan. “We were the first.”

Spy hard

This was such an achievement that, as Fagan celebrated the project with his team in the Christmas of 1988, competitors were circling.

Companies prominent in this space were scouting for information, according to Fagan, trying everything and anything to find out how his team achieved the feat. Rivals were interviewing students for jobs and ringing up those involved, fishing for snippets of information.

It was groundbreaking.

“We worked with an Irish company called Cornel Electronics, since acquired by Lake Communications,” said Fagan. “I built a team, we worked with them, I did the signal processing.”

In 1988, this was the world’s first fully featured V.32 modem, for which all the signal processing was carried out in a single chip. The DSP chip in question is in the large white package in the lower left of the card. The development was done in conjunction with Cornel Electronics. The research and prototyping were all done at UCD. Image: Tony Fagan

In 1988, this was the world’s first fully featured V.32 modem, for which all signal processing was carried out in a single chip. The DSP chip in question is in the large, white package in the lower left of the card. The development was in conjunction with Cornel Electronics, while the research and prototyping were all completed at UCD. Image: Tony Fagan

Fagan still has a modem in the top drawer of his desk – a dinosaur in modern technology, but dinosaurs did once rule the Earth.

Winning awards

Fagan recently won the prestigious Irish Academy of Engineering Parsons Medal for exceptional ability in research or engineering technology.

“It was a nice surprise,” Fagan said, whose efforts to establish a DSP hub in Dublin decades ago proved to be a prescient move.

Fagan achieved a PhD in digital filtering in 1978, a “very new topic” at the time that covered the basic techniques in signal processing.

Fagan believed he was onto something big. He moved to the UK to work with Marconi Research Labs, an employer that had the same ambition.

“At Marconi, they were all analog engineers. I was a young whippersnapper; I felt the world was going digital, I wanted to tell them that ‘this is how you do it’.”

Marconi sent Fagan all over the UK, visiting companies and banging the DSP drum. Coming back to Ireland in 1980, he believed a gap was there to be filled.

Prof Anthony Fagan receiving the Parsons Medal for Engineering Sciences for his exceptional ability in research and engineering technology awarded by the Irish Academy of Engineering. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Prof Tony Fagan receiving the Parsons Medal for Engineering Sciences. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

UCD hub

He founded the DSP research centre group in UCD, which has seen some 100 students graduating with master’s degrees and PhDs ever since.

“I was lucky to find some real visionary people at the time,” said Fagan, who credits plenty of the creation of this field in Ireland to Cornel Electronics. “They bet their company on what I was doing.”

The digital age was just beginning but by the end of the decade, Ireland was leading it. Now, nearly 30 years later, Fagan’s fingerprints are all over countless modern devices, often through decades-old algorithms.

As any engineer says, a problem solved once is a problem solved forever. Things have changed however, and Fagan has had to keep up.

“Since I started out, the main change is hardware: Moore’s Law has made it much faster,” he said. Another difference is what Fagan calls ‘abstraction’.

“In the ’70s [and] ’80s, we worked on specific algorithms to solve specific problems,” he said. “Now everything has such a level of abstraction.”

DSP Digital Signal Processing

Image: Deni_M/Shutterstock

A fundamental science

DSP is a fundamental science in Fagan’s eyes. A number of significant spin-out companies in DSP and related areas have emerged from his student groups, including Massana, Voxpilot, BiancaMed, and Xerenet, among others.

Fagan has collaborated with, and acted as consultant for, many major Irish-based digital and communications businesses. The company he’s most proud of is DecaWave, which has seen some of the most novel and exciting technologies explode onto the tech scene.

DecaWave creates wireless devices that can be located indoors to an accuracy of 10cm. By last summer, the company had already deployed over 1m IoT chips globally. Having raised $30m in funding to date, its ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless technology has close to 1,000 customers throughout the world.

“Michael McLaughlin, DecaWave’s CTO – I have worked with him for the last 30 years,” said Fagan. “The company has world-beating technology. Some of its chief engineers and designers are graduates of my group.”

The future

Fagan has obtained €4.5m in research funding during his career. He has more than 130 peer-reviewed papers published in international journals and has personally supervised 49 master’s degrees and 21 PhD students.

The future could be just as exciting as the past. “Yes, there’s a new topic called compressed sensing. It really came out of the blue.”

This is where Fagan suspects the industry is heading.

That 1980 gamble on the significance of DSP clearly paid off.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic