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6 July, 2018 - 10:12 By News Desk

CRFS opening New York manufacturing hub and harnessing AI

Cambridge radio frequency technology specialist CRFS is expanding its global manufacturing and system integration capability by securing a manufacturing facility in New York – the company’s second US base.

The company is also is growing its system and solutions offering by incorporating Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence into its unique RFeye® hardware-software proposition.

CRFS provides best-in-class solutions for radio spectrum monitoring, management and geolocation and offers a new generation of technology for the detection, identification and geolocation of signals in complex RF environments.

Business Weekly can reveal that the company is opening a new manufacturing facility in Buffalo, NY – its third in total – adding to Cambridge UK and its existing Chantilly, Virginia facility, just half an hour from DC and The Pentagon.

CEO Alistair Massarella said that the company chose Buffalo as an ideal location because: “We already have some key staff located there, plus we need a lot of wide open space, away from RF signal sources to test the equipment we make. Buffalo has good transport links and some very RF-quiet open spaces.”

CRFS has grown strongly since Massarella started the company 11 years ago and he is bullish that there is there is much more scope to develop its products and technology and scale still further.

He is excited about the technology direction of the company: “As hardware technology moves on, we can add more compute power onto our remote RFeye nodes for very little impact in power consumption,” he says.

“This means nodes are getting smarter. When we can combine that with the latest software systems, we can leverage powerful new ideas in Machine Learning and AI directly onto the nodes and data analysis systems.”

The upgrades to current technology are in full swing as CRFS is incorporating new ML capability within its general software releases.

Massarella says: “Managing interference in the radio spectrum is a growth industry.  And when your products are better than the competition and lower cost, and your customer service and support are top notch, the customers will come and the company grows – as indeed is happening.”

The company’s RFeye systems are deployed worldwide by regulatory, military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies. They are mainly used to monitor wide areas in real time to understand how the RF spectrum is being used, make more efficient use of congested spectrum and to deal with interference and identify potential threats. 

Interference can be accidental or malicious and have impacts ranging from the plain annoying to major threats to critical infrastructure, public safety and national security. In the military theatre, command and control of the radio spectrum is a critical element of modern warfare, alongside cyber security.

Massarella adds: “RFeye systems are trusted by some of the most demanding organisations, governments, security services and militaries in friendly countries around the world. 

“Most of these deployments are confidential for obvious reasons, but we are proud to count NASA Kennedy Space Center among our customers. We have also provided the systems that have been used at major global quadrennial sporting events of soccer and athletics, as well as in F1 motor racing.”

A key area of growth for CRFS involves continuous in-building monitoring of modern surveillance and espionage threats. Covert use of the spectrum to transmit data/voice/video from inside a facility to a receiver outside is a major problem for some organisations. 

RFeye systems are widely deployed to counteract such threats and thereby improve security. In April, CRFS launched its latest solution for this market - RFeye Guard.  

This is a fixed TSCM (technical surveillance countermeasures) system with very fast sweep speeds and sensitivity designed to identify and automatically alert the presence of transmitting devices (bugging and eavesdropping devices), which may operate anywhere within a vast range of radio frequencies.

Another exciting area for CRFS is the use of RFeye systems to geolocate radio transmissions in 3D. Successful trials have been conducted and the first systems are being deployed this year. 

Applications include tracking drones, checking aircraft systems are operating correctly, making sure no one is spoofing ADSB transponders used by air traffic controllers and passively tracking aircraft transmissions.

All of CRFS’ equipment is export controlled so the company only sells to the official UK approved list of countries. Massarella reveals that “probably over 80 per cent of all the sales are for overseas markets. The US is our most important single market, hence our increasing presence for manufacturing and integration services there.”

Started in late 2007, CRFS had three rounds of funding up to 2011. Since then it has been self-sufficient and is now strongly cash generative, allowing for expansion and more investment in Research & Development. 

The business was founded originally with just two people and now has 50 staff around the world – a headcount set to rise to around 60 by the end of the year.

The original concept for CRFS came to Massarella after he lugged a spectrum analyser out to a field site when he was having interference problems while deploying a point to multi-point microwave system.

The piece of test and measurement kit was eventually dropped and damaged, so Massarella thought: “Why not solve the problems with a set of rugged, easily deployed nodes that can scan the frequency band, operate from a battery, communicate over 2G (at the time), frequency and time lock and use new embedded GPS systems?”

Massarella concedes that growing a business organically is not without its challenges, not least finding and recruiting top talent. He said: “It is getting ever harder to find talented RF, hardware and software engineers in a competitive market-place for such talent.

“I would encourage young people to pursue their passions in the technology field. If you are going to work for a living, then make it is something you enjoy doing.”

Massarella practices what he preaches and has enjoyed building electronics kit for 40 years now – “the more flashing LEDs, the better!”

Regardless of the potential threat of Brexit, CRFS is keeping its RFeye on the big picture. It plans to open another design centre in Europe very shortly.

CRFS was founded using Cambridge Angel investor cash and, as such, Massarella says that “the long-term plan is to sell the company to give a return to the investors.” 

He is swift to add: “There is no pressure to exit but if the company continues to grow and generate cash with good profit margins, then we will inevitably be the target for acquisition and absorbed into a bigger organisation.”

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Alistair Massarella

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