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Of Mice and Men

By Dale Carnegie

Another Monday, the beginning of another week. Somehow I know, without even going into the lab, that by 9am most of the microelectronics group will already have logged onto their computers and be concentrating intently. If only it was work!

Yet what's appearing on their screens is exactly what's on mine at the moment -- an addictive computer game called VGA Planets. The microelectronics group has only existed here at the University of Waikato for slightly over two years, yet even so, we have eight masters students, one enrolled in a DPhil, and several undergrads hoping eventually to attain those elusive letters after their names. Let me introduce you to the group.

First we have Alastair Cooke. He's the technician for the group, and also a part-time student. Unfortunately he's also playing the Privateers in Planets, and has just been dealt to severely by the Fascists, so he's not in the best of moods at the moment. Alastair, half through choice, but mostly through necessity has become an expert in many fields, from ASIC design software, through to computer networking, robotics and hardware electronics. He's also the technical adviser for all the research students. All this in one person. The only trick is to keep Alastair motivated. For him, everything must have a practical purpose, otherwise he's not interested. Still, our group would be at a serious loss without him, if for no other reason than it's he who processes all the VGA Planets turns every morning. Talk about power absolute.

Gary Brightwell (The Fascists) is here early this morning, or did he just stay all night? Having gone 36 hours without food or water, Gary holds the record for endurance in the lab. Unfortunately I don't believe that it was all hard work. Gary's the "old man" of the group. He was the first to do his master's thesis in microelectronics, starting way back in 1991. Gary constructed the first micromouse in New Zealand to ever make it to the middle of a competition maze. Last year, he won the New Zealand Micromouse Competition, and a very generous offer by Philips Components saw him compete in the Australian competition, but alas, Penfold wasn't quite up to the task. He's now working on a mobile security system for his DPhil -- somehow I keep getting these visions of a high-speed RoboCop.

There are two students who have nearly completed their projects. Scott Burke is doing the foundation work for our group in Full Custom VLSI design. This is harder for him than it should be, due to our lack of funds and working with non-commercial software. Still he struggles along, continually tormenting me about all the advantages that owning the Design Center from Microsim would bring. All I can do is nod encouragingly and recommend that he takes out yet another loan and buy the thing for us. Scott, playing the Lizards, also isn't in one of his better moods. One of his ships just hit a mine laid by the Robots, and he fears an imminent attack by the Evil Empire. But one must persevere with these hardships.

Andrew Taberner, "Tabs" to us, is working on the "microcat." This is the ultimate answer to the micromice -- if we can't win the competition, we can eliminate the other competitors. The microcat, like the micromouse, is an autonomous robot, however it is designed to operate both inside and outside a maze. It is able to detect the sensor emissions from a micromouse, home in on it, and then...we'll leave that up to your imaginations. Needless to say, Tabs won't be that popular at the next mechatronics convention. The pressures of deadlines are having their effect on him. He gave up playing the Evil Empire to concentrate on getting the cat ready.

The rest of the group are first-year masters students, only now really getting into their projects. Mark Mullins is looking in depth at VLSI circuits, particularly the effects of radiation, with application to extra-terrestrial environments. Our group is working with the Electrical Engineering Department at Canterbury University, in the hopes of placing an experiment on a satellite to be launched in several years' time.

Andrew Murdoch is working on applications of superconductors in extra-terrestrial environments, also for the satellite experiment. Superconductors are a new area for our group, and we're extremely interested in radiation effects, and how well they can be used as a component in circuits that are subjected to environmental extremes.

James Clarke (who renounced The Colonies of Man, so that he could get more work done), is producing the second generation micromouse. Penfold taught us an enormous amount, and James' device should be a great improvement. James embarrasses many of the others with the amount of work he does, some of it at extremely unsocial hours.

Then there's Dwayne Gyde (playing the Robots), ex-owner of the "Rockulator", an almost legendary camper-van, painted in camo-colours, that just about everyone in Hamilton knows about. He's got probably the hardest topic in the group -- the "microbird". His aim is to achieve an intelligence and control system sufficient to maintain a helicopter in an autonomous mode of operation. Human enthusiasts have considerable problems doing this by remote, let alone trying to do the whole thing this way.

The list of Masters students ends with Toby Te Rupe. Somehow he avoided the snare of VGA Planets, but then again, he's just become a father, so I suppose he's got enough problems. Toby is looking at microwave sensors as an alternative to the infrared and ultrasonics we are currently employing in our mechatronics operations.

Various undergrads are working on what we hope will be commercially viable products, with the view to us marketing them, and providing revenue to support our research. It certainly can't be said that we're not trying to pay our own way.

So that's our group. Games enthusiasts, loyal attenders of the "brainstorming sessions" held at the pub every Thursday evening (where it is in fact a consumable offence to mention work), yet also probably some of the best electronics designers in New Zealand. Most of them lack industrial experience, yet they're utilising absolute leading-edge design technology. We're still very new to the scene, with only a handful of publications, and the one national competition win, but watch out for these guys in the next few years.

Dale Carnegie is director of Waikato University's Microelectronics Group.