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COMMENTARY

Photonics lights the way for Singapore's Smart Nation

Singapore today leads the world when it comes to powering a world-class smart nation, ranking alongside top cities such as London and Dubai, and even bypassing tech-savvy capitals like New York, Paris and Beijing.

The nation has been consistent in its efforts to deploy disruptive technologies to improve the life of citizens in areas from transportation and energy to education and public services. Singapore is at the helm of developing these innovations, and has set its sights on driverless cars, telemedicine and the coming rollout of 5G services.

A critical component and game-changing initiative in Singapore's Smart Nation is the use of Internet-of-Things (IoT). IoT is not a new idea in and of itself; what is new is conceiving it on a massive, wholly interconnected scale (referred to as "massive IoT" or MIoT). MIoT enables devices to connect and communicate so they can function as a whole, interconnected system, sending information, gathering data via sensors and sending streams of information to a central point for computation. Driven by software, computation gives the MIoT data meaning, and meaning is the basis for next-step decision-making.

As Singapore pushes on with its ambitious plans, and more connected devices come on board, the capacity needed on networks will continue to grow. Singapore will face increased demand for both faster connections and higher bandwidth to handle the larger volumes of data passing through networks.

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Any latency in data connectivity will lead to, for the nation and businesses, not only dissatisfied consumers but also safety issues. For instance, if wireless power amplifiers do not transmit data in time to automotive sensors, an autonomous vehicle may not receive traffic data on time, resulting in accidents and even human casualties.

To ensure Singapore continuously keeps up with global rankings and challenges the status quo, its Smart Nation Initiative is key to driving development of building blocks for advanced sensing, wireless and data transmission technology.

BUILDING BLOCKS OF SMART SINGAPORE

Enter photonics - often heralded as the next era of computing. With this technology, photons replace electrons to offer light-speed and super-energy-efficient data processing. With MIoT, Netflix, Facebook, YouTube and other bandwidth-consuming Internet sites are growing by a capacity factor of 2 per year. The total amount of data generated by any device will reach 847 zettabytes (10007bytes) per year by 2021, up from 218 ZB per year in 2016.

The data centre itself already consumes 2-3 per cent of the world's electricity today. The energy required to power and connect the technology is enormous; hence it is essential that adoption of higher-speed, more efficient technology take place.

As we move into the Smart City era, efficiency and capacity of the data centres and supporting infrastructure will become increasingly the subject of focus. Microelectronics will still have a place in our technology world, but photonic technology is set to take flight. For a start, making applications more energy efficient is a key benefit of photonics. The most advanced microelectronic chips can consume a picojoule (one million millionth of a joule, or 10-12 joule) when processing a bit of data. With photonics, less than a femtojoule per bit is produced, a factor of a thousand less energy demand.

As Singapore pushes on with its Green Data Centre initiative, data centres will find part of its solution for conserving power with the implementation of advanced photonic technology. Beyond energy, photonics brings cost efficiencies to several industries. With photonic technology, a single-circuit radar unit using light waves (instead of radio waves) called LiDAR can be built. This is vital for autonomous cars, enabling 3D vision of its surroundings.

While LiDAR has been around for many years, it is just now coming to market at a price point that meets the needs of the automotive industry for mass production while still maintaining high reliability performance needed to protect lives. Photonics has applications in aircraft safety and maintenance, delivering higher quality and lower cost monitoring systems. For example, in an aircraft sensor system, a photonic integrated circuit attaches to optical fibres to "sense" aspects of the airplane wing, loading volume, and can extend itself to measure strain and stress in the turbine blade.

The same principle of efficiency applies to the upcoming 5G network. Wireless base stations will be ubiquitous, smaller, less energy-intensive, and able to handle higher volumes of traffic at the network's ultra-high speed. In preventive healthcare, detecting illnesses such as cancer at an early stage and at a low cost is critical to realising quality health care for a greater number of people. Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) is a good example of photonics at work, helping health practitioners conduct highly accurate, non-invasive diagnostic procedures often in an outpatient setting. Photonic sensor systems have made it possible to capture and analyse information about patients, populations and the environments they live in, in a high quality yet still cost-effective manner. As companies save on the manufacturing process and new competitive technologies come to market, consumers will see this in everyday cost savings in their phone bills, healthcare and transport fares. Achievement of the Smart Nation objective is realised when it improves the lifestyles of citizens.

In physics, we know that nothing moves as fast as the speed of light. With such enabling properties, photonics is poised to become the cornerstone of Singapore's Smart Nation. Ahead of us is a future with many devices, applications and connections that stand to benefit from the speed and energy efficiency offered by photonics.

The possibilities of photonics are limitless, and integrated photonics are on the verge of making massive IoT an everyday norm. It is time for businesses and the nation to realise that photonics is everywhere, and coming at us with the speed of light.

  • The writer is managing director of Palomar Technologies South East Asia