College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Dr Bhekisizwe Mthethwa with (from left) his supervisor, Professor Hongjun Xu; mother, Ms Thandiwe Mthethwa; and brother, Mr Mzingaye Mthethwa.

Electronic Engineer Investigates 6G Wireless Technologies

Having spent endless late nights coding and running Python-based Monte-Carlo simulations, training artificial intelligence (AI)-based neural networks, deriving mathematical models, and performing nonlinear mathematical optimisation, it is no wonder that Dr Bhekisizwe Mthethwa describes graduating with a PhD as ‘a reward for conquering adversity and proof that I have a high adversity quotient (AQ).’

A myriad of setbacks, both financial and academic, did not deter him from achieving his goal. ‘After 10 manuscript rejections from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)  international  journals I felt completely demoralised and at some point, felt like quitting,’ he recalled, ‘but with the support of friends, family and colleagues, I persevered and eventually managed to publish two IEEE journal papers (international journals), one South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE) paper (local journal) and a conference paper.’

With 13 years’ experience in the field and as a registered professional engineer with the Engineering Council of South Africa, Mthethwa is no stranger to hard work and being rewarded for his efforts. During his undergraduate Engineering degree, he earned 28 Certificates of Merit, 41 distinctions out of 55 courses, six Dean’s Commendations, and won the Best Electronic Engineering Student prize for second, third and fourth year.

He went on to graduate with his Master’s in Electronic Engineering summa cum laude and published two international journal papers under the supervision of Professor Hongjun Xu, an expert in wireless communication physical layer multiple-input-and-multiple-output (MIMO) channel coding, wireless MIMO receiver error rate statistical analysis, and wireless MIMO detection scheme design.

For his PhD he continued his research on wireless communication under Xu’s supervision, but with an emphasis on 6G and beyond technologies. This gave birth to the idea to apply AI to solve the 6G-related challenges of designing wireless systems with ultra-low latency, very fast data rates and ultra-high link reliability.

Choosing UKZN to pursue his PhD was an obvious choice for Mthethwa. ‘The Electronic Engineering staff members’ expertise in wireless communication research for 5G and beyond technologies at the Physical Layer of the OSI model attracted me.’

His motivation lay firstly in the need to learn how to apply AI to solve real-world problems. ‘I wanted to be a part of a global team solving 6G and beyond related wireless technology challenges since 6G and beyond technologies will enable cellular communication towers to be able to communicate with passenger cell phones in bullet trains travelling at speeds of up to 1000 km/hr without compromising link reliability.

‘Secondly, 6G and beyond technologies will allow medical surgeons to perform (over an ultra-low latency, ultra-high reliability and fast wireless connection) remote operations by controlling robotic surgeons that perform certain lifesaving surgeries on patients in rural hospitals.

‘Lastly 6G and beyond will support hologram teleportation over wireless wide area networks (WAN), which have endless uses,’ he said.

Mthethwa said his studies will have a positive effect on society in that the reduction or minimisation of the complexity of wireless receiver detection will directly reduce the electrical energy usage of the wireless receiver.

‘This will have a direct impact on the Telco operator base station carbon footprint,’ he said. ‘These base stations consume a lot of electrical energy as they serve many wireless users transmitting and receiving data packets to and from the Telco operator base stations. Lowering the energy consumption of the Telco operator base stations has a direct impact in reducing the carbon footprint as Eskom’s electrical energy demand will drop and less coal will be burnt.’

Mthethwa is currently an ad hoc lecturer in the Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering Department at UKZN, lecturing Electronic Design to third- and fourth-year students.

He also runs a consulting business where he designs and builds software applications, AI-based biometric models, statistical models and Blockchain Ethereum-based non-fungible token ecosystems.

One of his current aspirations is to join UKZN as a lecturer so that he can bring his industrial experience to lectures and enrich undergraduates’ learning experience.

Words: Swastika Maney

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan