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Story Behind the Success: Francesco Fioranelli

Feature Story Behind the Success for AESS QEB Q2 2024
2 weeks 6 days ago
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2024 Nathanson winner award ceremony

I wish I could say that radar engineering had been my vocation and inspiration since a young age, but that would not be true. In fact, one could say that my landing into the radar community happened by chance, or shall we say thanks to a series of very fortunate coincidences.

Back in the days I chose to study at university telecommunication engineering, motivated by the fact that this sounded more original than classic information or electronic engineering, and there were no technical drawing classes (one of my greatest fears!) as in mechanical or civil engineering. Well, radar appeared in a couple of slides, but not much more in my degree… and the natural perspective, after graduation, would have been either to settle for a job in the network of small/medium companies that are the economic engine of my region, or move to the big cities (Milan, Rome, you name it) and search for my luck there.

Thanks to a funded mobility program of my university (Politecnica delle Marche, in Ancona, Italy), I instead moved to the UK as a trainee for six months, at the University of York, working on computational electromagnetics. That experience was crucial to realize that yes, a PhD could be a possibility going forward, and that I really liked the international atmosphere of UK universities. And so it happened that, while applying for many PhD opportunities here and there, I got accepted for a PhD on the topic of FMCW through-the-wall radar at Durham University - not the Durham in North Carolina, US, but the Durham in the North-East of England, a city with a proud mining history, a beautiful cathedral, and a collegiate university (and, like the more famous and larger Newcastle nearby, an interesting nightlife). Anyway, we are discussing radar, and indeed this was my first contact with the topic…I was really intrigued with the idea of what through-wall radar sensing enabled, beyond what one could see by naked eye, and I really enjoyed the combination of theoretical and practical work that my supervisor (Prof Sana Salous) pushed for, in order to build a demonstrator for our idea. While perhaps not elegant (many boxes and lots of cables on a trolley), I learned so much in this experience and I am very grateful for that.

Afterwards, another fortunate coincidence was that towards the end of my PhD, there was a vacancy for a postdoc in the UCL radar group with Prof Hugh Griffiths and his team on multistatic radar. I still remember walking from King’s Cross station to UCL the morning of my interview, a bit lost in the grandeur of the buildings around me and the busy traffic of vehicle and people, wondering if London would be the right place for me. I am very grateful to Hugh for offering me that position, as this was really what allowed me to gain experience in a top group in the radar community, with great facilities, a unique radar that we took for cool experiments in so many places, and opportunities to collaborate with many top scientists around the world. This is also the time when I started to work on micro-Doppler signatures and distributed radar, two topics that are still now among my main research interests and activities. I cannot list all the colleagues at UCL and beyond in few lines, but I want to thank Prof Karl Woodbridge and Prof Mike Inggs (who from the University of Cape Town was closely working with us) for their inputs and what I learnt from them, and Dr Matthew Ritchie, for the many experiments and discussions together, and for a great office sharing experience, sometimes extending to the nearby pub for deeper discussions. The UCL period was also when for the first time I attended a radar conference, it was the IEEE International Radar Conference in Lille in 2014. What a great experience to see in person so many brilliant colleagues just known ‘by name’ on papers, and to get so many inputs and ideas while listening to the talks!

After UCL, I moved to the University of Glasgow as an assistant professor in 2016, my first appointment as an independent PI. I must confess that moving from one of the top groups in radar to a university where there was no radar-related activity at all was a substantial challenge. But in a sense, it was also a very instructive experience to grow as an independent researcher and educator, with the responsibility but also the satisfaction to guide and support my students and PhDs. I really would like to acknowledge the shared work on micro-Doppler with my colleague and friend Dr Julien Le Kernec, as well as the support of Dr Kathleen Meehan and Prof Muhammad Imran that, perhaps a rarity among the management there, always encouraged and ‘protected’ my research work despite a very heavy educational workload.

In November 2019 I then decided to accept the offer of TU Delft and join the radar (MS3) group led by Prof Alexander Yarovoy, where I am still working now. It was not an easy decision, as the UK had been my home for almost 10 years and leaving a permanent position for a non-tenured one was a risk, but the reputation of TU Delft and the impression I had of its people, facilities, and culture when I went for the interview convinced me. Fast-forward few years and I am still here, while in the meantime the research activities of my group have grown to include automotive radar and related signal processing, while continuing in the area of human activity recognition and ‘radar for healthcare’ as well. 

I cannot list you all, my dear students and colleagues of MS3 group, but certainly my professional success is also thanks to your hard work and very insightful discussions. Having worked in several universities, I am convinced that a strength of TU Delft is the attention to quality of the scientific work, and considering degrees not commodities to be bought by students/customers, but qualifications to be earned (plus, of course, access to funding, that while challenging, is not ridiculously competitive).

So, why would I recommend students to get into radar? First, I was and still am fascinated by the concept of seeing beyond what you can just by eye, be this something far away, through the wall, beyond a corner, or a pattern hidden somewhat in a radar signature. Then, the fact that radar encompasses both theory and experimental work, mathematical models but also actual work with real systems, cables, chips, and so on…there is a practical element of ‘tinkering’ that I have always enjoyed.

To conclude, I started these few lines saying that my landing into the radar community was due to several fortunate coincidences, but to be honest there is more than that. First, in my journey I was privileged to count on the continuous support, mentorship and friendship of many people. Many among colleagues and students I have already mentioned and thanked while telling you about my career steps above, but of course also my parents Valter and Giuseppina and family, and my friends back home in Italy and in the many places I lived and worked. I also want to sincerely thank Prof Alexander Yarovoy for nominating me for this award, and Prof Sabrina Greco, Prof Mike Inggs, Prof Chris Baker, Prof Ram Narayanan, and Prof Pierfrancesco Lombardo for their strong support, as well as the colleagues in the AESS Radar System Panel for their backing. 

Then, my professional journey started thanks to the availability of two factors: mobility funding to support my first visit in the UK as a freshly graduated master student, without which it would have been unaffordable for me to leave Italy, and an open, visa-free border policy to move there (an opportunity these days sadly denied, or at the very least severely hindered, I must say). These are not fortunate coincidences, but actual choices that we as a society make. 

On this, I am extremely grateful to Fred Nathanson and his family for sponsoring this award over the years, and contributing to the education and career development of many researchers in our radar community.

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