Posted by Adam Funnell on
BBC R&D's Adam Funnell writes about being awarded a Royal Commission Fellowship for his work on networks capable of supporting 4k and 8k Ultra-High Definition video and immersive and interactive content. The 1851 Commission has previously awarded various fellowships to notable scientists such as Peter Higgs, Paul Dirac and Ernest Rutherford.
The Royal Commission's Industrial Fellowships support the work of PhD students working on collaborative projects with UK industry, where there is a real chance of a commercial product, system or process being developed as part of the student’s work. In this case, the specialist media facilities at BBC R&D are complemented by the world leading optical laboratories at the Optical Networks Group, University College London (UCL). The Fellowship provides not only funding to support the work involved in prototyping solutions that are both academically exciting and industrially useful, but also access to a huge range of scientific advisors and mentors from across academia and industry – past fellows of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 include several Nobel Prize winners! The award came after nominations from David Butler from BBC R&D, and Benn Thomsen, my academic supervisor from UCL. After completing an extensive formal application and a tough interview process, it was a real privilege to be awarded the fellowship at a special ceremony on 4th October.
Optical fibre connectivity has revolutionised communications, with 99% of all telecommunications passing over fibre at some point in their transmission. BBC R&D has an excellent relationship with the Optical Networks Group at UCL, and our joint research includes not only this project focussing on applications directly within production centres, but we are also looking into how we can continue increasing the capacity of fibre links to ensure efficient future distribution of programmes and services to our audiences.
Live production services are approaching a revolution in the way we create and process media, and we see 2 major trends and challenges to the way future content will be produced: using IP Studio technology to provide programme making functions on standard IT networks and hardware; and ever increasing data rates to provide high resolution acquisition for immersive and interactive content in 4K, 8K and beyond.
Both of these challenges will need high quality underlying networks to cope with the vast increases in bandwidth and to meet strict the timing requirements for live programme production. To build production networks fit for the future, we will use Software Defined Networking (SDN) models to reconfigure our networks rapidly and on-demand. However to complement the dominant packet-centric SDN concepts being researched across the broadcast industry, we’ll also be looking at how the underlying physical hardware can be controlled and adapted. Major broadcasters and venues, including the BBC, have excellent optical fibre connectivity across their facilities, but the resulting networks are generally built on point-to-point links between electrical switching units. We believe that by using fast switching optical hardware (rapidly wavelength tunable lasers, fibre space switches and much more), we can perform a lot of the switching and traffic management in the optical domain. This should support the traffic patterns needed in a media environment much more effectively than current networks (e.g. efficient multicast support by design), with scalable bandwidth, lower latency, and lower power consumption.
This work builds on very early concepts discussed with Chris Chambers (now retired from BBC R&D), and presented at the EBU NTS conference in 2015. Our ideas around how to design these network structures to meet strict requirements around bandwidth, latency and device identification have been gradually refined and experimental tests are beginning in the labs at UCL. Over the remaining 2 years of my PhD I hope to develop a fully functioning live production system prototype at BBC R&D – thanks to the support of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, and the IPES CDT at UCL and the University of Cambridge.
If you know someone who is interested in completing a PhD or EngD whilst working in industry, they can apply for next year's fellowships and receive funding.