BT wants its research back in the public eye

UK telecoms company is putting its Adastral Park research centre back on the map.

BT has a long history of innovation. As the Electric Telegraph Company, the company was responsible for the first commercial telegraph service in 1846. Its former research centre at Dollis Hill was responsible for the first transatlantic telephone service, the first digital telephone exchange, and the construction of the Colossus; the first computer, built by Post Office Telecoms worker Tommy Flowers.

“We're pretty proud of it [our history of innovation],” says Kevin Woollard, Operations Director BT Research and Technology and Adastral Park. “We've been doing it for quite some time.”

Since the 70s, Adastral Park, just outside Ipswich, UK, has been the home of BT's research. And although there have been a steady stream of innovations coming out there, the research facility doesn’t have the same historical heft as Dollis Hill or somewhere like Bletchley Park.

“I have a vision to take Adastral Park further, to put it back on the map,” says Woollard. “It was on the map big time, I think it's fallen out of the country's eye in terms of the value we bring to the UK and the UK economy, and I'm on a journey to put it back on the map where it should be.”

Part of that vision is BT’s continued commitment to innovation. The company is the third highest R&D investor in the UK over the last 10 years, and has filed the fourth highest number of patents for a UK company with the European Patent office. Woollard says BT has spent £2.6 billion on R&D in the last five years.

“We're filing around 100 ideas a year, which expand to somewhere between 300-400 patents. Given the number of people we employ, we are up there with the world leaders, the likes of IBM, we’re inventing at the same rate per person.”


Still innovating

On the same day BT’s shares took a massive hit due to an Italian accounting SNAFU, the company was opening its doors at its Ipswich, UK-based Adastral Park research centre to show off its wares to the media.

The day was focused around some of the research BT is conducting in partnership with other companies, and how the company is looking to take these research projects and commercial products and repurpose them for the UK’s defence forces.

According to BT’s Tony Boyle, Strategy Director Global Government & Health, a change in the way the MoD buys things means companies such as BT can’t rely on a few massive contracts anymore. The desire for resilient networks, greater insights from Big Data, secure use of the Cloud, interest in IoT, and better cyber-security are just as relevant in the military world as they are in the commercial sector, and Boyle says in a lot of cases, there is a ‘direct applicability from A to B’.

“[A lot of research] is no longer done by military organizations with deep pockets,” and so it’s up to companies like BT to drive innovation. Boyle describes Adastral Park as akin to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory; “Throw a brick and you’ll hit a PhD.”


Projects: Drones, VR, Quantum, and more

One of the more cutting-edge projects were shown was Quantum Key Distribution (QKD). Quantum computers are now becoming a realistic proposition for any organization or agency with enough money. And this is a problem for any organization that doesn’t want its encryption keys broken.

According to Woollard, QKD is the solution to securely sending encryption keys and secure content over networks in the age of quantum computing. The process, he explains, relies on physics:

“The act of looking at something changes it, and if you took a single photon and put it across an optical fiber, it's possible to know everything about that photon. So if you send a photon through that fiber, when you receive it at the other end the act of receiving it will destroy it but it will give back everything about that photon. So you can go back and say: “Is this the photon you sent me?” It's a simple answer, 'yes' or 'no', if the answer's no, you know somebody's looked at it, someone has attempted to interfere with it, they've consumed it and tried to recreate it, it'll never be the same. So you have to fight quantum computing with quantum communications.”

Through this method, it is possible to send a near-continuous set of encryption keys at a high rate, enabling not only the ability to change the encryption keys in use as often as you like, but also see if your encryption has been tampered with. BT has a working prototype in Adastral Park, and has achieved distances over 100km so far, but has been limited by what the company calls ‘architectural challenges’. Experiments by Chinese researchers, however, suggest transatlantic QKD via satellite is possible.

But that wasn’t the only tech on show. BT’s acquisition of EE in 2015 brought in a new way of doing research, and chief among the projects to come out of the mobile company’s own Skunkworks is the concept of “Air Masts”: a portable group of drones that can link together to provide network coverage in remote or emergency areas. Being tethered to the ground means the UAVs can stay in the air for up to a month at a time, and can provide coverage over a wider area than traditional mobile masts on the back of vehicles. The project has been tested in the North East of England after flooding, and has potential in other areas such as events, remote area search and rescue, and of course in military contexts.

Mesh networks, Software-Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN) are major areas of interest for BT. By connecting mini-masts to any building, person, vehicle, or drone, you can provide high-quality internet coverage over a large area much easier than currently possible. Boyle explains, currently MoD forces in the field are either reliant on limited bandwidth technologies such as satellite, or forced to lay expensive fiber in semi-permanent locations such as Camp Bastion, so mesh network technologies offer the potential for a vast improvement.

Although BT’s Assure Analytics is already on the market, the company is still looking to push its security visualization software further. Assure research is known as the SATURN Project, and the demo on display shows a Virtual Reality-based UI which includes hand gesture controls. Professor Ben Azvine, Global Head of Security Research and Innovation at BT, says the idea is to introduce real-time collaboration onto the analytics dashboards, allowing multiple users to explore the data on display, therefore identifying and remediating problems quicker. 

Internet of Things is another major area of interest for BT. The company has played a major part in MK: Smart, a smart city initiative based in Milton Keynes.

Among the projects that BT are collaborating on, Li-Fi (internet connections sent via light waves instead of radio-frequency spectrum), additional services on top of body-worn cameras, and the Networked Collaboration Service (a real-time, multi-screen, collaborative information dashboard from SecureCloud+ we’re told is about as close as you can get to Minority Report) are by far the most interesting.

Though it might not be an idea factory in the same way Google or Amazon might be, some of BT’s current projects suggest that not all of the company’s best innovation is behind it.


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