The Directed Energy Research Centre is home to 4G-proofed rooms that will help test devices’ electromagnetic chatter.
AS CHAOUKI KASMI orders the heavy lab doors shut, cell-phone reception bars disappear, and we all go gloriously off-grid. The French researcher heads up Abu Dhabi’s Directed Energy Research Centre, a new facility designed to test whether our gadgets will, from an electromagnetic perspective, get along. In one lab room, that means banishing almost all outside signals—providing temporary respite from those endless WhatsApp notifications.
We’re increasingly surrounded by machines, and they all have a shared language: electromagnetic force. Sometimes, this produces interference—a bit like crosstalk—as electronic circuits are compromised when they radiate or pick up unwanted signals. Think of the strange noises your radio speaker makes when in range of a cell phone.
It is Kasmi’s job to stop this happening—something that is increasingly important as the world gets swamped by ever more connected devices. If you’re unlocking your car using your phone, say, you don’t want interference that could mess with the dashboard controls.
Aside from conducting general research, the Directed Energy center labs are open to paying clients wanting to test their devices for electromagnetic compatibility—basically, to ensure they can operate near other electronic systems without interference.
The center’s dusty, unassuming warehouse on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi offers up few clues as to what lies within. It is currently home to three electromagnetic compatibility labs, in which a variety of objects—from tiny components like resisters, to “internet of things” devices, autonomous cars, drones, and satellites—can get a check-up.
In the low-noise emanation lab, hundreds of pyramid-shaped foam dampeners line the walls, helping insulate the room from outside chatter. When the door is shut, the electromagnetic signals inside can be measured down to just 1 picowatt—a single cell phone emits millions of times more—making it possible to study the very low noises produced by electronic systems with negligible interference. Kasmi likens the “electromagnetic silence” to being in the middle of the Empty Quarter: “we are able to study the same noise that is in the desert—no man’s land,” he says.
An antenna in the room is used to pick up the signals from the test subject, which could be anything from a tiny electronic component—a diode or resistor, perhaps—or a larger part. The point of testing them is to see whether the electromagnetic signals from one object will interfere with others—whether, for example, a component for a mobile phone will disturb the cell function when incorporated into the handset. “Our goal is to predict and prevent electromagnetic coupling,” says Kasmi.
The broader facility is designed to help electronics makers and researchers protect against natural and human-made electromagnetic hazards.
In the pulsed power lab, powerful signals can be blasted at test items to see how they react. A Marx generator—which creates high-voltage pulses—is being installed this summer, which means researchers will be able to create artificial “lightning” bolts that can be fired at, for example, a satellite, in order to assess its robustness.
Behind two heavy doors—which between them weigh in at some 3.5 tons—is the semi-anechoic chamber, the largest and most impressive of the three labs. Inside, a car stands on a huge reinforced turntable, which can rotate the vehicle to detect how much electromagnetic “noise” it creates from different angles. “You don’t want to have parasitic disturbance—like an unwanted reaction in the car from a transmitter such as your phone,” says Kasmi.
It’s in this larger lab where items like drones can be tested to see how they respond to electromagnetic signals, as well as monitoring for potential interference they may cause. The lab is fully automated, with the antenna and turntable equipment being operated from a control room next door. It’s connected to the pulsed power lab, allowing researchers to blast objects with nanosecond pulses and multi-megawatt microwaves.
The entire facility—which is part of Abu Dhabi’s Technology Innovation Institute, the applied research pillar of the Advanced Technology Research Council—currently has about 80 staff, half of whom are Emirati nationals. Kasmi says this will be ramped up to 100 by September, with other facilities planned in areas like laser photonics, acoustics, and opto-electronics.
With paying customers already in place, the labs are already in commercial use—but it was no mean feat installing the specialized equipment. Even the giant doors—through which cars can be driven into the lab—took 6 months to manufacture, while heavy-duty machinery such as the turntable had to be partly re-engineered on site. But for Kasmi, it was all in a day’s work. “If you are not interested in challenging yourself every single day, then you are in the wrong place,” he says.