QMT Features: May 2012
Measurement in 2020
Rising to meet the measurement challenges of the next two decades.
By Kamal Hossain, Director of Research and International at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL)

Writing a forward thinking vision is a difficult process as it is hard to predict the future. I am sure that Louis Essen and his team working on the first atomic clock at NPL in the 1950s would never have realised how their work would impact on our everyday lives through providing timing for GPS, mobile phones and the internet.  Yet for NPL’s work to actively underpin prosperity and quality of life in the UK we need to make an informed decision about where we should direct our work to support UK innovation and quality of life.

Such decisions are not lightly made. NPL’s vision is founded on discussions with government, industry and the research community – including our own world class scientists. From this we believe that technological progress in the 2020s will be driven and constrained by the need to achieve a sustainable low-carbon economy; innovation through scientific discovery, and the well being and security of the citizen.

The work our scientists undertake with academics and industry is at the forefront of contemporary metrology. Through this activity, they have an understanding of what the future needs of metrology will be. They know the state of the art across all areas of measurement and what potential there is for progression. They have an idea of the type of technology available in the next decade and what end users expect of it. Perhaps most importantly they know how all of this interacts with the metrology supply chain from the SI units to measurement systems.

This unique position has enabled NPL to identify four themes within which we believe metrology will develop in the 2020s.

1.The new quantum SI

There is an unbroken series of links at the heart of the traceability of measurement results that is provided by National Measurement Institutes like NPL.  By introducing the new quantum SI will see several base units revised and redefined, removing the last physical artefacts and fixing values to fundamental physical and atomic constants. This will enable the chains of traceability to be substantially shortened and support research at the vanguard of scientific and technological development.

2.Measurement at the frontiers
As science advances it pushes the frontiers of what is possible in metrology, driving the need for new capabilities that go beyond what we can currently measure. This is expected to include measuring everything from the atomic to the extremely large, measuring in extreme and harsh environments, in the presence of interference and at timescales from attoseconds to millennia.

3.Smart and interconnected measurement
The availability of networked information will integrate physical objects into the global information network. This will enable new capabilities in computing, software and communication technologies. It will be driven by new sensors developed on quantum-, bio- and nano-technologies being integrated into measurement networks and integrating data from myriad systems. Finally, it will be a smart system in the way it calibrates across networks by fusion of data enabling a new interpretation of traceability across a system.

4.Embedded and ubiquitous measurement
New products and systems will have inbuilt metrology capability. This will be embedded into machines at the design stage and will be easily accessible through functionality. It will ensure that critical measurement systems will be permanently on and always calibrated.

Measurement applications in 2020s

What will this mean to real world applications? Well if we look at the areas we believe that will drive research into the 2020s we can illustrate how metrology can address these challenges.

A sustainable low-carbon economy
Our need to monitor the state of the planet will drive measurements of climate and the environment. We need to be able to accurately monitor the changes on our climate over time, to be able to assess how policies to address this are working. Improved measurement through the new quantum SI could provide direct traceability for Earth observations systems at uncertainties of 0.01%.

More efficient energy and a more diverse supply are key to achieving ambitious targets around carbon reduction and maintaining security of supply. Measurement will ensure the reliability of these systems and provide investors with the confidence to bring about a step change in security of supply and consumption. For example, new structural health monitoring techniques could identify tiny micro-scale and chemical changes – underpinning the long term accuracy and integrity of structures.

Scientific discovery and R&D
The future factory will be a smart facility where design and manufacture integrate into a single process that enables bespoke products to be accurately fabricated on demand. For this to be successful, measurement will need to assess and guarantee the fit, performance and functionality of every part. This could include machine tools that calibrate themselves with traceability to the SI and can be used as in-situ metrology devices.

Metrology is critical to the successful delivery of large-scale basic science or high investment R&D – otherwise known as ‘big science’. These will be the most ambitious projects of the future, aimed at pushing the boundaries of science and technology to meet society’s grand challenges. A great example is deep space exploration. Accurate navigation would need atomic clocks to be stable to better than parts in 1017 to ensure that expensive missions safely reach their intended targets.

Well being and security

Future healthcare systems will provide personalised medicine tailored to the needs of individuals. To make personalised diagnostics that are both economically viable and clinically effective it is essential that new measurement techniques provide the knowledge to underpin them.  For example, calibrated diagnostic devices directly connected to knowledge databases and treatment plans to provide tailored therapeutic interventions to individuals.

By the mid 2020s the planet’s population will surpass eight billion. Alongside other challenges such as changing climate this will present a challenge in terms of managing resources and stretching the lifetime of infrastructure. Measurement is critical in accurately monitoring the status of resources, and ensuring we move to a more sustainable future. For instance, microbial and temperature sensors in food packaging using remote data acquisition could confidently assess food quality to prolong their shelf life and help reduce waste and shortage of supply.

What will this mean to measurement scientists? Metrology in the 2020s will lead to fundamental changes in how the research and capability we develop reaches users.
The services that NPL and other National Measurement Institutes (NMIs) deliver could eventually be superseded by self-calibrating portable standards that enable in site traceability. NMIs may move towards delivering traceable measurements to end users seeking to achieve traceable measurements in harsh or challenging situations. As a result this will see a shift from traditional traceability models to a problem solving approach that utilises the expertise of measurement scientists.

Taking the vision forward
NPL’s vision can only be developed further in partnership with our customers, stakeholders and collaborators. We welcome your contributions to developing this vision further. An on-line version is available for comment, together with a series of questions at: www.npl.co.uk/2020vision

In the future, we hope this document and your comments will provide inputs for a greater understanding and foresight for the requirements for new capabilities at NMIs and inform our roadmaps and strategies.l
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