Connectivity expert retires after more than 40 years of pioneering work on fibre optics at UK institution

One of Huawei’s longest serving optical communications experts at its research centre in Ipswich is retiring after more than 40 years at the facility was run by an arm of the Post Office.

Michael Robertson, 66, has spent four decades leading developments in the field of photonics and now serves as Research and Collaboration Manager at the Adastral Park site, devising ways to increase connectivity and speeds across the telecoms network in Britain and around the world.

The cutting-edge technology at Ipswich is used to convert data to optical pulses, send it along fibre optic cables at the fastest possible speed, and translate it back into electric signals at the other end.

When Michael first began, researchers were developing the first prototype systems with speeds of 8MB per second. Now the technology allows for speeds of 50GB per second – 6,000 times faster – so for example, a film that would have taken over an hour to download would now take less that a second!

Huawei bought the photonics technology facility from David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition in 2012 when it abolished the East of England Development Agency that owned the company, then known as the Centre for Integrated Photonics.

In the past decade, the workforce has more than doubled and it makes products that are sold around the world. Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei has visited the facility twice.

Michael says: “My work is based around lasers and detectors for optical fibre systems. It’s a specialized field, but we all rely on them. Calls you make over Zoom for instance, you’ll be using technology we have developed.

“I remember thinking when I started out that we may one day get video phones but the change we have seen has been incredible really. The amount of data traffic travelling on Britain’s network is going up by 25 per cent a year. So the challenge is to develop technology that can cope with this traffic increase, finding new ways of getting more data down the optical fibres and at the same time doing it more cheaply.”

Michael’s career reflects the changing nature of the telecommunications industry in the UK. In 1979, after he graduated with a PhD from Durham University in Physics, he joined the facility at Martlesham Heath when it was run by the Post Office Research Centre.

When British Telecom was formed it took over the facility and it became a central plank of the group’s work in fibre optics development. The Photonics Technology Group was sold to American outfit Corning just before the boom in 2000. In 2003, Corning laid off the entire workforce, but the facility was taken over by the East of England Development Agency, which enabled the Centre for Integrated Photonics (CIP) to be formed.

Huawei was selected by EEDA as a preferred bidder in 2012 and the acquisition was welcomed by Suffolk MP Therese Coffey, who said the investment highlighted the quality of the hi-tech business in Ipswich.

Michael says: “The cultural transition has worked very well. Huawei was a lot more focused on results within tight timescales, but there is a lot of mutual respect. And the company is run by engineers and technologists.

“The founder, Ren Zhengfei, has visited twice. Apparently on a trip to London, he once asked his team ‘Take me to somewhere that does real science!’, so they brought him here and we showed him round. Some might say I’ve had a boring career, spending 42 and a half years in one place, but I’ve covered a lot of different aspects of the optoelectronic technologies in that time and really enjoyed it!”

Michael Hill-King, Collaboration Director at Huawei UK, says, “Michael’s career at Martlesham Heath, latterly Adastral Park, is a journey through the development of the optoelectronics industry. He has been an inspiration to many people in the field and is respected across the UK photonics landscape. He’ll be too humble to say it, but his work has benefited anyone in the UK with an internet connection.”

Michael Robertson’s one regret is that the UK and BT didn’t invest sooner in fibre-to-the-home. He believes the opportunity should have been taken over a decade ago. Now the Government is playing catch-up. “It’s a disappointment. In 2019, the UK was actually bottom of the list in Europe for fibre-to-the-home. We’re now something like 30th.”

He plans a low-key leaving celebration with friends in Ipswich and notes that Hi Michelle,Hi Michelle,Hi Michelle,despite his extraordinary tenure at Martlesham Heath, he’s not the longest serving. One of his colleagues at the site began three weeks before him and is still working.

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