Calit2 Expertise in Software-Defined Radios Grows with Addition of Zhongren Cao

7.28.2005 – “I’ve always wanted to build things,” says Zhongren Cao, at the beginning of our interview. “And that’s what Calit2 is enabling me to do.

He is in charge of design and development of a MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) software-designed radio platform, a project funded by Calit2 industrial partner Ericsson. His team includes researchers and engineers from UCSD, Ericsson, ViaSat and RFmagic, and UCSD students. His areas of expertise include wireless communications, signal processing, and digital system design and prototyping.

Zhongren "Arnold" Cao
Zhongren "Arnold" Cao

Cao has a two-year appointment in the Calit2 UCSD division as an assistant project scientist. He goes by the name Arnold, selected from a dictionary when he attended a program to study English and American culture 10 years ago during his undergraduate years.

Cao (pronounced Tsao) returned to the US in 2000 as a PhD student at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, near Manhattan. Fortuitously, given his interest in practical implementation and testing, his advisors both met that specification themselves: Yu-Dong Yao had just left Qualcomm, and Uf Tureli had completed a wireless prototyping system at the University of Washington, Seattle, before becoming an assistant professor at Stevens.

Why Stevens? “Professor Yao called me from the US in late June to ask me to join his group,” says Cao. “I was complimented by his offer, and New York City appealed to me. I figured it would be exciting to live in the ‘capital of the world’ for a period of time.”

While at Stevens, Cao met UCSD Electrical and Computer Engineering professor Bhasker Rao at a conference. “Professor Rao had attended my presentation and approached me about doing a postdoc at UCSD,” says Cao. “UCSD is known for its wireless communication research, is a fast-growing university, and is in a great location – How could I say no ?” Cao’s been on campus for a year.

Cao’s project has parallels with CalRadio, just announced in mid-July, led by Doug Palmer and Don Kimball with whom Cao is collaborating. “We are using common technology, but our goals are different,” he says.

“CalRadio,” says Cao, “is a device that is low-cost and portable, so it can be deployed in the field as a functioning end product to support such projects as WIISARD.”

His platform, by contrast, is being designed to verify the validity of complex algorithms and prototype new products. “I think of it as a facility to prototype new capabilities and support other platforms – as a tool to create other capabilities rather than an end in itself like CalRadio,” he says, admitting that, “It’s also very expensive and not easy to move.”

This platform, he says, can be used to verify research results in the academic world as well as develop and incubate product ideas in the industrial world, such as related to designing systems on chip. “I like the idea of integrating academic and industrial expertise,” he says. “That’s where new ideas come from.”

Cao is trying to optimize the digital system – both software and hardware. “I expect to work with students in the senior undergraduate and graduate design courses on campus,” he says. “They can gain hands-on work with this platform as part of their research activities.”

In talking about students, Cao’s thoughts turn to education more generally. “Engineers in training today,” says Cao, “need also to understand the practical side. I think education should include both theory and implementation. That way you have a much better chance to put your ideas to use.”

All of Cao’s degrees are in electrical engineering. He received his BS from Jiao-Tong University (Chiao-Tung University, using Taiwan’s transliteration), one of the first universities in China, which has evolved into five independent universities today. Cao, a native of Zhejiang, intrigued about cultural differences within China itself, chose to attend the campus in Xi’an for his undergraduate degree. His MS degree is from Shanghai Jiao-Tong University.

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