ASTRON and Nikhef collaborate to improve FPGA engineering design practices

14 - 06 - 2018

ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, joins the membership program and partners up with Oliscience (Open Logic Interconnects Science), a new start-up originating from the CERN Business Incubation Centre (BIC) at Nikhef, to collaborate on the engineering of tools that are essential to achieve scientific discoveries in the fields of particle physics and astronomy.

The newest generation of radio telescopes will produce immense amounts of data; orders of magnitude higher than what is presently generated by top-end instruments. For example, the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (located in Dwingeloo, the Netherlands) currently generates over 1000 GB per second; but the Square Kilometre Array (which will be located in South-Africa and Australia) will produce 160 Terabyte (1012 bytes) per second, which is more than 3 times the current global internet traffic. This vast data collection enables astronomers to look deeper into the early universe at higher resolutions. To build the instruments that can handle such large data traffic, increasingly complex digital systems are required.

Important aspects of these systems are a type of chip (integrated circuits) called Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). FPGAs are frequently the bridge and the heart of the data acquisition chain. These devices can exploit different tasks in parallel, using less energy than normal computer processors, and offer very flexible architecture capabilities. However, all those features come at the price of complexity in terms of design methodologies. To facilitate this already burdensome process, program code for FPGAs – known by experts as gateware – is bound in easy to reuse design packages referred to as ‘IP (Intellectual Property) cores’, or simply ‘cores’.

“Nowadays, programming these Cores is a very complicated task and only specialised electrical engineers can do this,” says Daniel van der Schuur, digital design engineer at ASTRON. “That’s why we work together through an online portal called, where we share our designs to avoid effort duplication and foster reuse and distribution in the spirit of Free and Open Source (FOS) collaborations.” The aim of the OpenCores community, consisting of scientific institutions and industrial enterprises, is to share gateware for FPGAs on an open source website.

Since September 2017, OpenCores is owned, maintained and developed by Oliscience, a start-up led by entrepreneur Andrea Borga, a digital designer at the Electronics Technology department at the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics (Nikhef). Next to managing, Oliscience aims to strengthen and promote the development of reusable cores in the field of digital design engineering for FPGAs, with a careful eye on scientific applications. ASTRON is the second NWO institute joining this innovative initiative, the first one being Nikhef. ASTRON and Nikhef strongly believe in the value of Oliscience and its mission to empower the OpenCores portal and community.

“I am very happy that ASTRON is now a partner of OpenCores,” says Borga. “FPGA-based technology and gateware engineering is a multidisciplinary field of development, so I am delighted to see that engineers from Nikhef and ASTRON can provide cross-application platforms and further collaborate on the appliances essential for their respective scientific discoveries.”

Van der Schuur agrees: “We are working on the opposite extremes of physics, but we are using the same technology. This collaboration allows us to share ideas and reuse FPGA-designs, which will help to speed up the process of engineering the tools for science.”

Source: ASTRON/Oliscience

More information:

Andrea Borga – owner Oliscience and digital designer at Nikhef – contact 
Melissa van der Sande – Science Communications Officer Nikhef – contact
Iris Nijman – Science Communication & Outreach Officer ASTRON – mail – 0521 595208

Photo: Gert Kruithof (Head R&D ASTRON), Daniel van der Schuur (engineer ASTRON), Andrea Borga (owner Oliscience).