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A PhD student with their supervisor

Newsletter for prospective research students

Welcome to the Department of Electronic Engineering newsletter for prospective research students. Our aim is to give you an overview of the research in the Department and what it is like to be a student here. We undertake a wide range of research activities from 5G ultra-high capacity density systems and underwater networks, to autonomous robots and healthcare. Our research is focused around three major groupings: Communication Technologies, Intelligent Systems & Nanoscience and Engineering Education & Management. In each newsletter we highlight specific research activities and individuals along with a round-up of recent research news. We strive to be a world leading research department - we hope you enjoy reading about our research.

Our research labs and facilities are open for staff and students to undertake practical work in Covid secure conditions. As a prospective student or offer holder, we understand you may have concerns about Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the potential impact on your enrolment at the University of York. We want to reassure you that our shared sense of community and compassion puts our students at the very heart of our University. We’re continuing to follow official advice and adapt our response as the situation evolves. You can find further details of our approach on our Coronavirus information pages.

Let us know if you have any questions.

Best wishes

Prof Stephen Smith, Deputy Head for Research and Dr David Halliday, Chair of Department Research Committee

In this issue:

Research news round-up

Professor David Grace, gives an update from the Communication Technologies Research Group.

The Communication Technologies Research Group is a partner in the Mobile Access North Yorkshire (MANY) project, which is part of the UK Government's funded 5G Testbed and Trials initiative. Over the past year, we have developed a software defined radio based 5G wireless system to serve rural temporary events. We will be evaluating this shortly with one of the MANY industrial partners for a search and rescue application, along with testing it with our Helikite aerial platform system out in remote areas in the Yorkshire Dales National Park later in 2021. In conjunction with an industrial partner we have recently pioneered the use of artificial intelligence in a propagation planning tool for fixed wireless access, allowing buildings to be automatically recognised, which helps improve the siting of customer premises equipment.  The group is also researching free space Quantum Key Distribution, supported by EPSRC Quantum Communications Hub. It is currently developing state of the art equipment for world-first high altitude platform tests in 2022. The group is pioneering underwater acoustic networks, which is a rapidly growing sector, enabling new applications and supporting key maritime industries. Recent trials have shown that the innovative physical layer and self-configuring multi-hop protocols developed at York work effectively. This area will develop further over the next three years with York leading the £1.5M EPSRC COUSIN project. Finally, later on this year we will be moving into new purpose built labs in the new Institute for Safe Autonomy, which is a £35M investment by the University, Research England and industry. The new institute is equipped with a Underwater Acoustic Lab, with specialist pool, a High Altitude Platform Lab to enable state of the art payload development, and roof top and outside test areas to allow tests of autonomous and wireless technologies.

Dr Steve Johnson tells us the latest news from the Intelligent Systems & Nanoscience (ISNS) Research Group.

The ISNS has for many years undertaken world-leading research into the development of algorithms that are inspired by biological processes. While we continue to research and develop new algorithms, our attention is increasingly focussed on applying these biological inspired algorithms to real-world problems. An area where we are having significant impact is in healthcare. For example, members of the group are undertaking an analysis of measurements from a new study at Ruijin Hospital, Shanghai to assess patients for mild cognitive impairment. The approach applies "white-box" machine learning to data obtained from hand and eye-tracking sensors that record subjects' movements whilst they complete simple tasks. It is hoped that this will provide a more objective and accurate means of screening people for the early signs of dementia. We are also currently using similar tools to evaluate data from studies across the UK that focus on repurposing drugs to slow down or even halt the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

It is not just software algorithms that can be evolved. For a number of years we have also been developing adaptive hardware systems that can evolve autonomously in order to improve performance or to increase tolerance to component failures. We have recently started to apply these ideas to robotics. Robotic systems designed through traditional approaches are often not well suited to novel or unknown habitats and contexts, for instance robot colonies for exploring other planets, or robot swarms for monitoring extreme environments on Earth. New design methodologies are needed that support optimising robot behaviour under different conditions for different purposes. However, it is accepted that the behaviour of a robot is determined by a combination of the body (morphology, hardware) and the mind (controller, software). Optimisation of a robot for a particular context must thus consider both the body and mind. Research being undertaken within the ISNS is addressing many of the issues relating to such body-mind challenges. We have already developed an autonomous robot fabrication facility (RoboFab) that is capable of building robots designed through evolutionary processes. Work continues on refining this RoboFab (find out more on this below), on learning processes for these evolved robots and challenging experimental environments.

Hopefully this gives you a taster of some of the research undertaken within the ISNS - although I haven’t had chance to talk about our recent successes in MRI-guided laser treatment of prostate cancer, new logic circuits using magnetic skyrmions or photonic biosensors for the management of rheumatoid arthritis.

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Student profile: Tian Gan

Photo of Tian Gan

''Hi! I am Tian and I am a PhD student in the Bio-inspired Systems and Technology research lab in the Department of Electronic Engineering. I moved to the UK from China in 2014. After finishing a 2-year A-level study in Brighton, I came to York and graduated from the University of York in 2019 with a BEng in Electronic Engineering and have become a research student right after.

My research focuses on Reservoir Computing based on delay-dynamical systems. This project is mainly inspired by my supervisors, who introduce me to this field with amazing ideas and have always been kind and supportive, especially under this pandemic circumstance. The department also provides opportunities and events for us to engage with other people's work and gain skills in different areas. The 3 Minute Thesis, poster presentation session and numerous seminars have given us opportunities to reinforce the idea that we are working in a positive direction.

So far, my PhD life has been both challenging and fascinating. The motivation during the PhD study is not always constant, might look just like the shape of a roller coaster. It combines moments of extreme happiness with periods of stress and panic. Having about 2 years in my PhD journey makes me realise, apart from the academic skills, it is all about frustration tolerance. You may feel frustrated and sometimes even lose your motivation when facing a huge challenge. At that moment, think of the roller coaster, the stage of climbing is never easy. Do not quit, things will improve if you keep working. Results will come. Thankfully, there has always been a wealth of support from my supervisors and people in my research group. After all, I am not alone in this.

Having lived in different countries and cities so far, I can honestly say that York is the warmest and one of the best places to stay!''

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Technology at York: The Robot Fabricator (RoboFab)

Towards space exploration...

It's hard not to notice the recent resurgence of interest in space exploration and colonisation. Different countries and companies across the world have started to invest in space missions. There is no doubt that the human civilisation will step again on the Moon or on Mars in the near future. However, something that has not changed since the first time the first human step on the Moon in 1969, it’s the fact that space missions are expensive and they are not eco-friendly due to the high carbon emissions emitted at the spaceship launching. Until we find a way to reduce the price of space missions and reduce carbon emissions, we should aim to minimize the number of times human civilization send people and equipment to space. This becomes even more important when establishing the first human colony on a different planet.

A robot that fabricates robots...

A way to reduce the number of trips from planet Earth to a different planet is by having a robot on that second planet that uses the resources of the planet to autonomously design and fabricate other worker robots. These worker robots would construct the infrastructure for the first human colony. In this way, the fabrication of the human colony would be independent of Earth’s resources and human labour, thereby will decrease the number of trips to that planet. The Autonomous Robot Evolution (ARE) project takes the first steps towards achieving the goal of having a robot that fabricates worker robots.

The Autonomous Robot Evolution project...

Autonomous Robot Evolution poster

The ARE project focuses on a disruptive robotic technology project where worker robots are created, reproduce and evolve in real-time and real space. The long-term vision is a technology enabling the evolution of entire autonomous robotic ecosystems that live and work for long periods in challenging and dynamic environments without the need for direct human oversight. The worker robots are autonomously fabricated by another robot called Robot Fabricator (RoboFab). In the department, we have one of the instantiations of the RoboFab.

The Robot Fabricator...

The RoboFab make use of evolutionary concepts to design the worker robots. The worker robots are firstly tested in a virtual environment. Then, only the successful robots are fabricated and deployed in the real world. The performance of the physical robots is measured and with this information, the RoboFab improves the design of the robots in the virtual environment. Over time, the RoboFab comes up with the best design for the worker robots for a specific task.

The RoboFab makes use of a robot arm and 3D printers to fabricate the worker robots. The 3D printers generate the body of the robots and the robot arm attached the different organs (components) to the body. The worker robots can take any shape and can have any number of different components giving the possibility to evolve the robots for a large variety of tasks.

The short aim is to autonomously fabricate with the RoboFab dozens of evolved robots that can do foraging.

If you'd like to find out more about this work, please contact Dr Edgar Buchanan Berumen, email: edgar.buchanan@york.ac.uk

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PGR student 'buddy' scheme for offer holders

Would you like to be contacted by a current postgraduate research student from the Department of Electronic Engineering? Under our 'buddy' scheme we are offering you the chance to be emailed by a current student. They will let you know information about the programme from their perspective, and can answer any questions that you have about it. If you are interested in this please email Helen Smith and Susie Beckham with your name and student number confirming that you agree for us to pass your email address on to one of our student buddies.

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York Minster

First in a series of short features on the tourist attractions of York and surrounding area, Yorkshire. York is the second most-visited city in England (after London) and has a wealth of historical buildings dating back two thousand years. It was an important town for the Romans (when it was known as Eboracum), and the Vikings (who called it Jorvik).

York Minster

One of the great cathedrals of medieval Europe, and the largest Gothic building in Europe north of the Alps, the "Cathedral and Metropolitan Church of St. Peter in York" (commonly known as York Minster) lies in the centre of York, 30 minutes walk from the University campus. Founded in 627 AD, and largely rebuilt by the Normans in 1068, it reached its current size in 1472. Particularly famous for its stained glass windows, it also boasts what is possibly the oldest active police force in the world, and contains many curios: including the mysterious dragon's head in the nave: no-one now knows why it is there.

In the middle ages, York was second only to Canterbury in importance to the English church, and the Minster was continually expanded and decorated using donations from the pilgrims who came here. The result is a building that encompasses every type of Gothic architecture.

Also, uniquely for a gothic cathedral, it contains a roof boss designed to commemorate the 1969 landing of astronaut Neil Armstrong on the moon; one of a number of features inspired by modern events to replace older bosses destroyed by fire in 1984.

The building is used for concerts as well as worship, and is open every day. For details of upcoming events, more news and photos, visit York Minster's website.

It's a haven of peace in the middle of a bustling city, even just wandering around the grounds and gardens can bring a precious few moments of calm.

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