The MEMENTO Team (one member missing)
University of Malta showcases advanced electronic development during the Malta Robotics Olympiad event
Electronics development at the University of Malta continues to reach new heights as the University consolidates its position as the foremost venue for advanced electronics education and research in the country. Two years ago the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering invested heavily in a new design studio, a modern printed circuit board (PCB) fabrication plant and electronic assembly facilities. This permitted undergraduate and postgraduate students to up their game, and aim for the state-of-the-art in many of their projects.
A number of these projects have been given a commercial perspective, with several enterprising students taking advantage of access to equipment and the all-round technical guidance afforded by the University to venture into full-blown product development. 'It is not uncommon for our students to pursue their final year thesis projects further even after they graduate, and this includes various robots and drone designs,' says Dr Ing. Marc Anthony Azzopardi who has been encouraging students to take this route. 'Things are changing in this country and today there are several opportunities of funding and support for good ideas. It is becoming easier to create your own business as long as you put your mind to it,' he continues. 'The University offers a sterling service in this regard. We have favourable intellectual property (IP) sharing conditions for budding entrepreneurs, not to mention training opportunities from the Centre for Entrepreneurship & Business Incubation (CEBI) and ongoing mentoring and support from the Take-OFF Business Incubator and the Knowledge Transfer Office (KTO).' These entities are strategically located next door to the Engineering Building.
Two teams showcased their latest developments at the Malta Robotics Olympiad (MRO) event last weekend, as part of the Faculty of Engineering’s effort to engage students from a young age.
MEMENTO, a team of 5 bright engineering graduates and students – Andre Micallef, Roberto Drago, Karl Galea, David Scicluna, Alec Fenech and their mentor, Dr Azzopardi – described the intricacies that go into electronic product development. Their circuit designs handle data rates in excess of 65 Gbit per second that are generated by some of the world’s fastest commercial off the shelf image sensors. Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) are used extensively in this kind of work in order to funnel the vision information into banks of fast memory.
The next hurdle is getting the data out of the camera, in real-time. Fast multi-lane fibre optics are required at these speeds and PCB design is taken to a whole new level, with 12 layer stack-ups, transmission lines and discrete components that are barely visible to the naked eye. Power and cooling requirements are also very challenging in order to ensure that the product remains compact and practical. Low volume assembly of such systems has become an art in and of itself and here one has to rely heavily on the equipment to ensure reliable results.
ASTREA is another team of highly motivated students and academics that are engaged in top-end research. In this case, their aim is to develop and launch Malta’s first satellite – a 250g PocketQube that will orbit the earth at an altitude of 550km for many years after its planned launch towards the end of 2018. 'This project combines the art of miniaturisation with design for reliability, a duo that has innumerable commercial applications,' says Darren Cachia, who was the first Masters student enrolled on this multi-disciplinary research programme. 'Work is progressing at a very good pace and by the end of this academic year we will have working prototypes for the solar panels, electrical power systems, attitude control and an early version of an electric propulsion system.' Other students working on this project include: Darren Debattista, Denise Baldacchino, Ramses Rotin, Daniel Cumbo, Mario Bonnici and Jonathan Camilleri in the UK.
MEMENTO secured close to EUR 200,000 of funding covering a three-year period of intense development, from the Malta Council for Science & Technology (MCST) through FUSION: The R&I Technology Development Programme of 2015. The plan is to produce prototypes approaching a marketable product that can be serially produced efficiently. This will enable the team to spin off the activity into an independent company and take it off from there.
ASTREA, on the other hand, is currently growing more organically with the support of the University of Malta Research Fund, the Research Innovation & Development Trust (RIDT) and several contributors from the local industry, but there are plans to also commercialise aspects of the PocketQube satellite in view of the booming CubeSat market. Moreover, subsystem development for space applications creates countless opportunities for international collaborations.
'Our students are clearly learning by doing, contrary to common misconceptions,' adds Dr Ing. Andrew Sammut, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering. 'In electronics, for example, we are reaching the stage where students are only limited by their own imagination. If you want to do great things with your life there is nothing to stop you, and we are here to help you. University education is free and is open to anyone who wishes to excel.'