When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature so people could let their loved ones know they were safe. The problem? The earthquake knocked out mobile communication networks and WiFi. Restoring cellular networks and WiFi are a key part of natural disaster rescue efforts so that relief agencies can monitor the areas worst affected and get help to the people who need it most. These communication problems are central to research being carried out by Professor Trung Duong in the Centre for Wireless Innovation (CWI) at the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT) at Queen’s University Belfast (Queen’s).
When Trung was growing up in Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Vietnam, he was not only aware of the beauty of his surroundings but also the perils associated with tropical storms and floods in the rainy season. Every October and November, the children would stay home from school for safety and communicate with each other using walkie-talkies fashioned from Coca-Cola cans and some string. As he grew older, he was inspired by the idea that you can invent communication methods, and that spurred him on to learn more about signal processing for telecommunications.
Trung’s stellar career began when he joined Queen’s at the end of 2013 after completing his PhD in Sweden the year before. The university spotted his talent straight away and offered him a faculty position in early 2014. He was thrilled to join the faculty of a university that is a global leader in cyber technology. “Queen’s is a very reputable university in the world and is especially strong in my field of telecommunications. CWI in ECIT is one of the top ten places in Europe for telecommunications engineering and that’s what really attracted me to apply.” Just a year later, Trung was recognised as one of the top young researchers in the UK and awarded a five-year Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) Research Fellowship to study high energy-efficiency and secured 5G networks.
In 2017, Trung received another accolade, the Newton Prize, for his work in Vietnam on a wireless communication system durable enough to survive and transmit data during natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. It serves as an early warning system, signalling when extreme conditions are imminent, and also provides important information about environmental issues like coastal erosion or pollution levels in cities.
While advances in wireless communications technologies have made early warning systems like this possible, a new cellular generation is already on the horizon that will further revolutionise automation and smart technology. Last year Trung was awarded a prestigious five-year RAEng Research Chair to research 6G technologies. The new 6G cellular generation will be ultra-reliable with near zero-latency communications meaning information can be exchanged without delay for a massive number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Trung is particularly interested in how 6G can be used in industrial automation. He gives an example from the car manufacturing industry. At present, robots building cars are controlled by wires, which reliably communicate information to the robot without delay. The problem is, if the factory wishes to expand or make changes to the assembly line, everything must be rewired: a costly and time-consuming process.
In contrast, wireless technology could enable factories to adapt rapidly to such situations. However, current WiFi and cellular networks are not one hundred percent reliable and suffer from delays, neither of which is acceptable in the manufacturing industry. Wireless 6G technology would offer near zero-latency. Trung is working to address these issues and believes this research will also have applications in natural disaster events, where fast and resilient communication is essential to ensure rapid network recovery.
When Trung started his faculty position at Queen’s, he was a freshly graduated PhD student who didn’t yet have experience building and running his own research group. He received strong support from Queen’s to develop his research career. He says that this kind of support helped him mature and excel as a team leader. “We have a very open culture in collaboration. People are very willing to help the young academic staff. That’s very important.”
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Trung is a Professor and Research Chair - Royal Academy of Engineering at Queen's University Belfast. He earned his PhD in 2012 from Research Chair - Royal Academy of Engineering.