5G industry news Transport & Mobility

High Speed Mobiles

  • 8 minute read
  • Published by Eleanor Brash on 9 Jan 2020
  • Last modified 9 Jan 2020
The best place in the UK to test cars is now the best place to test 5G mobile technology, a world-leading testbed designed to put the UK in pole position for autonomous and connected vehicles. Simon Rockman went for a test drive.

This article was first published in the CW Journal Volume 2 Issue 3

You might think that a download speed of 1Gbps while travelling at 160mph is impressive but it’s something that’s done regularly at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire as a McLaren laps a 3.2km bowl. It’s even more impressive when you learn that the 5G coverage consists of 22 hyper-small cells which means the lapping car is being handed over every two or three seconds and, because it’s using two cells for much of the time, sees a burst rate of 3 Gbps.

This is the AutoAir project. The work being done is essential in the development of connected and autonomous vehicles. Future systems will be able to ‘see’ through the traffic ahead, for example, and self-driving cars will know if there’s an accident just around the next blind bend.

Millbrook Proving Ground is where motor manufacturers go to test their prototype cars and is the site where one of six government-funded 5G projects is based, as detailed in issue three of CW Journal. Apart from the high-speed bowl, the proving ground houses car-handling circuits, different pavement finishes from all over the world, a skid pan, a mile-long straight for speed tests, and a fabulous test road known as the Hill Route

The CEO of Millbrook Alex Burns sees digital technologies as an important part of the site’s future. A new test centre specifically for connected and autonomous vehicles is being built – but AutoAir isn’t waiting for that. Burns is pressing ahead in applying the current principles of automotive development work to telecoms.

Tell Tale Telemetry

The focus for most of the test teams is on safety and security. Moving to driverless cars should make the country’s roads safer and having more data on upcoming hazards will help both traditional and driverless cars. Knowing there’s an accident ahead lets cars and drivers see into the distance but other data has to be handled sensitively because not every driver sticks to 69mph on the motorway and wouldn’t be too happy if all the telemetry information was made public.

CW member Real Wireless did some market analysis for the National Infrastructure Commission and reached the conclusion that one of the most important areas for improving communication was on transport routes, both rail and road. It also noted that drivers and cars will expect to be connected all the time and many driver aids will require it – such as Volvo’s warning system about black ice.

Rahim Tafazolli, professor of mobile and satellite communications at the University of Surrey, is closely involved with the project and says, “We are only at the beginning of 5G”, enhanced mobile broadband is only the beginning. He describes 5G as “a special generation” that should not be compared with 4G, it’s not just faster than 4G, 5G is a fabric of connectivity with flexibility, capacity, and low latency. The economic benefit will be substantial by 2030, with 5G giving a national GDP increase of more than one per cent from improved mobile broadband, and over four per cent from improved automation.

The AutoAir network is built on the 5G core developed at the University of Surrey which Tafazolli claims is four years ahead of other 5G core ventures. His department’s development projects will help the UK diversify and be less reliant on being a service economy, he claims.

Both the University of Surrey and the AutoAir project have benefited from The Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) funding.  In all up to £200m will be  provided by the DCMS for projects right across the country, with the aim of gaining 5G leadership and accelerating adoption. Combined with industry funding, this has produced six Phase 1 test beds including the one in Millbrook.

Not just cars

The AutoAir work can also be aimed at improving rail connectivity. While Network Rail has a number of yellow test trains – including a radio test train – it’s very hard to have long periods of exclusive use of train tracks for testing. Fortunately, either a car or coach lapping the road track at train velocities is a good way of testing technology that can be rolled out on the railway system later.

Ian Smith, the DCMS 5G testbeds and trials programme director, sees the various projects as the key to creating new use cases looking at what can be done with faster connectivity and lower latency. Lessons have been learnt on spectrum availability and the use cases are starting to build, but most of all he values what the participants have learnt from the benefits of collaboration. Throughout there are more than 50 partner companies deployed on the six projects all working in parallel. UK5G - the national 5G Innovation Network is also, of course, supported by the DCMS, and is working to promote all these projects, enhance further technology cooperation and partnerships, and, most of all,  to stimulate industry demand and take up.   

The AutoAir consortium is led by Airspan, with support from the University of Surrey 5G Innovation Centre, Arm, Blu Wireless, Dense Air, Millbrook, Quortus, Celestica, Real Wireless and McLaren Applied Technologies. The UK mobile network provider O2 isn’t yet a consortium member but has provided use of its spectrum and sees the strength of the collaboration as a major attraction for working with the companies.

There are no plans for the new McLaren Speedtail to be the first production car to use a 5G mobile system. McLaren Applied Technologies is a separate division that takes technologies developed by McLaren Automotive and sells it into the other industries. That doesn’t stop AutoAir from having the use of a £120,000 McLaren 540 as a test car but the test team also uses a high-power Mercedes E63 AMG estate car, a BMW i3 hybrid electric city car and a passenger coach – all equipped with 5G test kits. Every seat on the coach has a screen to allow the engineers to see network diagnostics and views from the other vehicles.

The whole fleet is tracked with 16 by 16 mini-massive MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) and beamforming. One of the areas of research the consortium is learning about from the deployment is how to work with the Doppler effect because the McLaren laps at three times the speed of the coach. Unfortunately, I was only allowed in the coach (I did ask!).

Governmental support

Ofcom supports all the 5G projects and has taken on board the criticism about spectrum availability. Ofcom CTO Mansoor Hanif points to the regulators report on wireless innovation (http://x.co/ofcom), he’s enthralled by the sophistication of beamforming which helps with spectrum efficiency. Hanif points out there has never been so much spectrum usage with 250,000 licences, and more to come. Ofcom is consulting about shared spectrum and it proposes releasing 400MHz at 3.8GHz to 4.2GHz which it sees as suitable for rail and road use.

The AutoAir project went from concept to up-and-running in nine months, which is remarkable given the scale of the project. Millbrook is a big site but the level of coverage is very high, with 89 cells deployed over 59 locations. The spectrum used is 5G TDD at 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz to 3.7GHz, plus WiGig 57GHz to 71GHz principally used for backhaul. This is perhaps the densest 5G network in the world, wherever you stand you can see half a dozen cells.

A lot of fibre has been run around the estate and Paul Senior, CSO of Airspan and CEO of DenseAir, has learnt a lot about trench digging and mud. The site is being run as a neutral host using systems from DenseAir so that AutoAir can provide an infrastructure that other operators – be they BT, EE, Vodafone, Three or O2 – can all connect to, and experiment with. Processing has been moved from the core to give multi-access edge computing and narrow band 5G base stations (gNodeBs)  as an integral part of the architecture.

The neutral host model of infrastructure sharing is expected to be essential in bringing down the cost of installing a high-density, mobile network. Part of the work done by the test bed is to show how multiple networks can play nice together. It can also test the technical feasibility of improving poor mobile coverage in transport corridors and show how constant connectivity, low latency, and high throughput can be supported by 5G.

The new 5G base stations have been developed by Airspan, using Intel Xeon AVX-512 processors which are specifically designed for this kind of application. They are the world’s first SDR 5G base stations, leading in open radio-access networks, and aimed at reducing the operator’s reliance on individual vendors. Part of the network flexibility is demonstrated by the masts’ flagpole-like arrangement so that antennas can be swapped out quickly. Real Wireless radio planning has sites located around Millbrook and the infrastructure comes from Blu Wireless equipment with Quortus providing virtualised network capability. Not all base station sites can be reached by fibre, so the fibre network is supplemented with a WiGig mesh.

The idea of drivers being able to view a screen which shows what is ahead and round the next bend is described as “seeing into the future”, but that term could just as well be ascribed to the whole of the AutoAir project.

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