From phones to car satnavs to moon probes, Bay firm Spirent is at the cutting edge
IF OR WHEN the European Space Agency lands an unmanned probe on the Moon there is bound to be a cheer going up in Paignton.
The staff at Spirent PLC in Aspen Way have been working with the agency on the systems which ensure the robotic probe will land in the right place and know where it is moving around the moon's South Pole, hopefully in 2018.
The fully automated, 800kg craft and its proposed mini-rover will use the latest positioning technology which is being tested by Spirent.
It will be using the same global positioning signals which we use in our phones and car satnavs, because though the satellites are focused on earth, the signals are broadcast out deep into space.
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In fact there can be few people who haven't used similar technology tested by the company's labs, whether in their smart phones, tablets or cars.
Spirent test equipment replicates the signals from the Global Positioning systems of satellites circling the earth like GPS.
This was first developed by the military in the 1980s and the original engineers at Spirent first worked on related test systems when they were still part of Nortel at Long Road.
But today the world's leading makers of smartphones and cars, as well as the defence ministries of major nations, are all customers of the Paignton company.
Managing director Martin Foulger explained customers range from governments and major defence contractors to major names in the European and US car industry, camera and aircraft manufacturers.
The business was founded when conglomerate Bowthorpe decided to specialise in high growth technology and Nortel — whose engineers initially had a MoD contract to develop a GPS signal simulator — wanted to raise some cash in 1997.
Martin explained: "When that contract first came up in the 1980s, GPS was very much in its infancy and predominantly used by the military.
"Then there were less than 20 people involved and now we employ 70 in Paignton alone. The purchase was somewhat speculative because the potential of GPS wasn't really known."
Spirent develops hugely complex, sophisticated technology to fool equipment into thinking it is communicating with GPS and the growing range of positioning satellites around the globe being deployed by other nations including Europe and China.
These systems are increasingly being harnessed by companies like smartphone or sat nav software or application developers to make everyday life easier, from guiding your car, to finding your lost phone. And not only are the uses mushrooming, but so too are the number of people using them.
However, though the positioning system has been known to save lives, for example locating injured people during 9/11, it still has many shortcomings. For example, signals are blocked if you are in a city surrounded by skyscrapers or down the underground.
Signals can also be degraded by atmospheric events and sunspots. The added complication is that satellites are constantly moving across the sky, unlike your TV satellite, plus the tens of thousands of miles between them and the receiver makes the normal signal level incredibly small and difficult to detect.
Initially the Spirent engineers expected to make one or two of these signal simulator boxes, but Bowthorpe put in more investment and the company's work continued to grow.
Martin explained: "If you want to test a guidance system in a rocket one way is to fire the rocket. The other way is to first attach the system or chip to one of our test systems and see how it behaves. You can make it think it is somewhere where it isn't at any date or time and can even change the simulated atmospheric conditions."
Paignton is the only research and testing unit outside the US.
"The core technology is always being modernised, the signals are being made more robust decreasing the potential for a system to be intentionally 'spoofed' or jammed, a trend which is becoming increasingly evident," added Martin.
A glimpse of future uses for the systems include positioning individual cars which receive and send wif-fi-like signals so they can take avoiding action if there is a risk of an accident, for example, or optimising car speed when approaching traffic lights.
Martin said: "It's a potential high growth area for this business, because we are expert in testing networks, which would be associated with roadside systems, Wi-Fi and GPS.
"Paignton is a rather curious place for us to be. We sell relatively little in the UK, mostly to the Government or MoD or people contracted to them."
Spirent is represented around the world by distributors or sales agents, for example in Germany, France, Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and America. Manufacturing is done in Wales, but the core engineering, core marketing, sales planning strategy, final testing and assembly of products and customer support are in Paignton.
"This is where the decisions are made," he said.
Asked why then Spirent is in Paignton, Martin said: "There is nothing which stops us being successful by operating out of Paignton, but the challenge we have is that we increasingly feel we need to be nearer our customers than we are.
"It is getting harder to really know what our customers on the West Coast of America want being based here, even with modern technology, their demands are increasing. Applications are exploding whether it's on your phone, downloaded from iTunes or wherever, or GPS going into devices and vehicles.
"We are probably about 50 per cent dependent on external government funding, places like US, Korea, and 50 per cent on commercial. For the future we are working on technologies such as GPS in trains and the railway network and road tolling systems in Europe.
"Devices are being developed so that for example a phone can be located from the phone network without it making a call, and using wi fi to locate yourself underground and making your device work seamlessly when you come back up to ground level.
"You might be using your phone just to make a call, but the complexity of the technology in your device is much higher than most people might comprehend. For our business there is a lot of opportunity for the future."
However, he said spending cuts in defence budgets around the world were making themselves felt.
"Our biggest single customer is the US Government, directly or indirectly, and the US military budget will be hit by the trillion dollar savings over 10 years the Government is facing. 2011 was our best year ever but this year has been a bit of a difficult year for us. We are down a few per cent, but we have made good profits and our position in the market globally hasn't really been affected. We don't have a huge number of competitors."
But Martin, who is chairman of the Torbay High Tech Forum, is a firm believer that companies like his will offer youngsters good career opportunities, creating well-paid jobs on their doorsteps, especially as the industry can see there is a need to recruit the engineers of the future.