Cowes Week is one of the major sporting events of the year. Think Wimbledon, Ascot, Henley, Badminton, Goodwood and Silverstone; all events that are known by their locations. And while Cowes Week takes place in the Solent between the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth, it’s the harbour at the north of the island that gives the event its name. The racing of sailing boats has taken place since 1826. More recently, smaller classes of boats have been added to the racing to make it more inclusive.
Around 700 boats and 8,000 competitors now participate. The participants range from Olympic and world-class yachtsmen to weekend sailors. The spectacle that the racing provides, together with the vibrant festival atmosphere, attracts more than 100,000 visitors to Cowes during the event.
Laurence Mead, Event Director, explains: “Cowes Week has become a very eclectic mix of black-tie balls at the prestigious yacht clubs up and down the high street, including the Royal Yacht Squadron where Cowes Week started 196 years ago, happening on the same night as crew parties at the local pubs and bars. Everybody’s having fun, all in their own way.”
What’s up dock?
The problem those visitors have is that, while they can see boats through binoculars, they can’t actually see what’s happening on board. The aim of the 5G project is to flood the Solent with 5G so that 360-degree cameras can feed back activity to shore, where spectators can don virtual reality headsets and get transported to the helm.
Mead sees the introduction of a digital experience to the event as very important to attract new sponsors to Cowes Week. It’s an interesting project for 5G Testbeds and Trials, and fits the experimental remit. Nautical coverage is new to cellular, let alone 5G; it’s a whole new radio planning challenge and equipment has to endure the hostile wash of sea salt. The hope is that what is learned from the project will go into a whole raft of other maritime applications.
The Solent racetrack is about 30 miles long and about eight miles wide, so presents a very different challenge to that of covering stadium events. The Cowes Week website already streams the event, but so far has only one static camera, which sits on the Royal Yacht Squadron clubhouse of Cowes Castle, which has a view across the start line. So as soon as the boats leave the start line, the coverage ends. The event does not have the budget to fund helicopters and camera teams on the water. The project aims to see whether, with 5G and small cameras on about 60 boats and perhaps a few drones, it can carry extra-high-end coverage of a non-stadium sport back on to the land and then to the internet at feasible levels of budget and technology.
The project is being led by Cowes Week organisers with a consortium that includes aql and 1851 Trust. The company aql is a Leeds-based infrastructure supplier that has extensive telecoms experience, particularly in fibre and backhaul. It has been the technology sponsor of Cowes Week for a number of years. Chief Executive Professor Adam Beaumont, who is a UK5G board member, is a keen sailor and Cowes competitor. Among its other roles, aql is championing a campaign against disposable plastic bottles for drinking water and is promoting refillable bottles.
The 1851 Trust is an educational charity, which is a spinoff of Ben Ainsley’s America’s Cup team. Part of the America’s Cup remit is to give back to the community, and Ainsley wanted to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, focused on all the high-tech stuff around America’s Cup boats. The STEM Crew is a free digital education programme for 11- to 16-year-olds. Each teaching resource harnesses the power and excitement of a professional sailing team to inspire students. STEM Crew resources have been used in classrooms to teach more than 150,000 young people. The trust has around 3,500 teachers signed up to its programme and has put about 25,000 children through its Portsmouth base.
Collaboration between Cowes Week and 1851 will be reciprocal, with content from Connected Cowes feeding into the educational projects. For the event, 1851 will have a display on Princes Parade, which makes up the promenade along the seafront at Cowes. The trust will have a 40-foot container and will perform a STEM education presentation during the event; then, to take the project forward, 1851 will turn the project technology and data into a STEM education programme, which will be launched in September 2021.
The project is able to offer a neutral host that will enable visitors from all over the world to use the Cowes Week service. The project is also committed to making the service available to other sailing events.
In the fullness of time, the project organisers aspire to evolving the existing Cowes Week app into a general connected-Cowes sailing app. Then all the yacht clubs that are involved in the three major local events - the Fastnet Race, the Around the Island Race and Cowes Week - would use it for these festivals.
The team members behind the project sound confident and well prepared. Given the scale of the event that they organise, perhaps that’s no surprise. Every year they have to deal with the vagaries and uncertainty of a programme that is totally dependent on the weather. This has no doubt prepared them for handling very much better-behaved radio waves.
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