Introducing a Different and Sophisticated Form of a Radio

Khobatha Setetemela
Khobatha Setetemela

As a youngster, the curious and adventurous part of you may have forced you to blast open an old radio just to find who was speaking inside. But would definitely find nothing but a series of boards—the proverbial green boards.

Yet with the Software Defined Radio (SDR) technology which Mr Khobatha Setetemela, a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) is working on, along with like-minded colleagues worldwide, the green boards in conventional radios may soon be a thing of the past.

Modern technology is changing in the blink of an eye. In the process, the world is becoming a city. Yes, you can sit in one corner of the earth and converse with your buddy in the opposite corner, without a hiccup. It is in this ever shrinking world that the sharpest minds converge to unravel some of the most intricate challenges of the twenty first century. And Mr Setetemela has dared to join the team.

He is working on a research project with the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he is participating in a huge project. The intention is to build the world’s largest radio telescope. If successful, the project will have huge consequences. Not the least of which is cost saving in many areas.

Mr Setetemela never imagined that he would be involved in a research project related to one of the most prestigious projects in the observable universe. The humongous project is dubbed the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). To be based in South Africa and Australia, its major goal is to develop the largest radio telescope in the whole world. Once finished, the telescope will survey the sky more than ten thousand times faster than ever before! Thus the planets and stars will be revealed in presently unimaginable details!

Together with the software defined radio group at UCT, Mr Setetemela is part of a global team of researchers. They are working hard to develop technologies needed to see this peculiar telescope become a reality. “Maturing the software defined radio technology is one of the key research problems that need to be addressed to enable this massive project,” he said.

Mr Setetemela went further into the intricacies of the software defined radio technology. He said a radio system uses radio waves to communicate, be it a cell phone, blue-tooth, typical FM and AM radio receivers, and the likes.

“Unfortunately, the kind of computer chips that were, and still are, in use for radio systems are old fashioned,” he said. “That is, traditional radios are mostly developed on fixed hardware. Once made, they support only the radio service(s) they were made for, forever. ” With SDR, programmable chips are used which can then be programmed to support any desired radio service on one chip. “That is, the same chip can be programmed to function as a normal FM receiver. Later it can be changed to become a cell-phone, a blue-tooth device and so on”, he added.

Mr Setetemela’s major interest and focus is in the simplification of the process of programming computer chips to run SDRs. Some of the key chips used for the SDR technology include multicore PC microprocessors, graphics processing units (GPUs) and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). “Though powerful, these devices are hard to program”, he explained.

He emphasized that the aim is to address this SDR “programming challenge” through better ways and tools of programming which hide away and automate complex tasks from novice programmers. “We want people to be able to program chips for SDR applications without a need to be chip experts”, he said.

With software defined radios, millions of money can be saved. For instance, if any mobile service provider wants to change from 3G to 4G, they will not need to go through a major change of the hardware equipment in their towers. Rather they will just need to update the hardware with new 4G code and that will be it!

The technology also brings convergence. One does not have to be putting a mobile phone, GPS, radio, television on a desk in the next generation. One can have all these radio services in one -highly flexible- device and re-program the device to support new ones as they come, which is smart.

“There is no free lunch with this technology, but it is worth it,” He admitted.

Advising young fresh minds out there he said, “The good thing about computer programming is that there are millions of paths to get to a solution. It does not confine people to one way. Computer programming nurtures people who are not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts. It is the thinking process that matters the most. It has a sense of originality. Thus, it is very interesting. Nobody has to be afraid of it.”


This blog post was originally written by NUL Research and Innovations