But making sure that West Midlands industry maintains its leadership – and those jobs – was just one of the challenges being tackled by the umbrella organisation promoting 5G in the West Midlands 5G (WM5G).
A dynamic and energetic Mayor, Andy Street, bought into the idea of using 5G to promote West Midlands industry and services very early on, soon after he was elected Mayor in 2017.
“Andy threw his weight into it – he was determined make the West Midlands the centre for 5G. The Mayor was being super-supportive and his buy-in and enthusiasm galvanised the team,” says Lesley Holt, Accelerator & Communications Director for WM5G, Holt. WM5G kicked off in March 2018.
Now, three years in, says WM5G MD, Robert Franks, “We have delivered our initial objectives. The planning environment for putting cell sites on top of buildings changed radically with the introduction of the new ECC. Electronics Communications Code , in 2017”.
“It was very well intended, but it has effectively changed the business model for putting masts on the top of buildings, created a lot of confusion, and has slowed the roll out. It can take three years to get planning permission.”
So the organisation found itself working to smooth the path for the operators when they hit planning obstacles at the local level.
“We’ve got a good relationship with all the seven local authorities at different levels. So we created a 5G Digital Forum, which nominates champions for each local authority. Part of our activity has been building those relationships and getting those champions on board,” says Holt.
The champions are there to navigate the local authority’s processes.
“When we come across a planning problem, we get the details. We’ve broken down some problems, and had planning instances dismissed after we’ve intervened and resurrected the application.”
Part of the job is changing the mindset, from seeing planning as a short-term profit centre to a long-term economic advantage.
“It helps when local authorities understanding the opportunities. Previously a lot was a revenue generator. They needed to help educate their organisations about what the opportunities were.”
That hard work is paying off.
The West Midlands came top of all the English combined authorities for 5G coverage. Admittedly, 22 per cent extent of coverage sounds like a low base, but it’s nevertheless a base that others envy, and other regions can learn a lot from the comprehensive efforts that WM5G has made to ease the path of network deployment.
The 5prinG accelerator is another example of an innovative, proactive approach to stimulating the region economically, fulfilling Franks’ second objective. It’s an accelerator that acts like a platform, or matchmaker – an intermediary that matches demand for new applications and 5G use cases from local industry to suppliers who have something to help. The former include big corporates and local businesses for example, while on the supply side, are industry parties who can help.
“Birmingham has largest number of startups outside of London - it has an amazing base. However, when you look at the data from the scale up industry - although there are some great success stories like GymShark, there aren’t enough of them,” Franks explains. “The number of ‘scale ups’ has gone backwards – and we need to do more to support these organisations to grow.”
One reason for this, he suggests, is that the supporting infrastructure outside London is not as mature: the region receives three per cent of the venture capital investment that London receives. Hence the need for a startup incubator.
“We’ve got amazing startups, just above the network layer, who are developing applications, services and platforms, and who have brilliant ideas for how we can use 5G combined with other things like IoT and AI to improve industry.”
The 5prinG consortium by O2, Deloitte, Telefonica’s innovation hub Wayra, and the Digital Catapult. 5prinG opened the first accelerator in Birmingham in March 2020, with facilities in Coventry and Wolverhampton to follow. Each has a private 5G network.The accelerator helps those late stage startups reach develop prototypes, but also provides an education function for a broader range of businesses.
“It’s an environment where organisations of any size can experience 5G,” Franks explains. Over 500 organisations have already taken advantage of it.
“We throw out challenges then work with startups, usually over a three month period to meet that challenge and move that business on.” 5prinG eschewed the equity model, where it makes capital investments in the startup and sees advantages indirectly. Instead it wants them to grow, or even move to the region.
“5pringG delivers a range of programmes; if an organisation wants to find out more about 5G, we can help them - they can join a shorter one to two day event,” says Holt.
“The longer 12-week programmes are themed - we’ll identify a sector and some demand side owners, and invite them to come on board.” 5prinG typically takes in around 12 to 15 organisations at a time, and a winning project has multiple sponsors.
For examples, seven local authorities signed up to the Smart Cities challenge.
“That identified four or five key areas that they wanted addressing. We then did an innovation call - whatever the challenge for supply side organisations, they can then show them a product or idea.”
The selection process has winnowed around 90 applicants down to 16. WM5G hopes to reach some 2,000 businesses via 5prinG. Those key vertical sectors, include transport, manufacturing and live events. It functions as a kind of platform, or match-maker, peering demand for 5G with possible suppliers.
WM5G’s earlier programmes provide a taste of what enterprise can do with advanced network, at times, influencing the business at a profound level.
The idea of 5G-gleaned data allowing new business cases has been recognised more broadly at the 5G private network at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry. This will allow manufacturers to share lessons learned from applying robotics to the modern factory.
Here the High Value Manufacturing Catapult encourages SMEs to adopt new technology. “Six hundred SMEs a year go through it,” says Frank.
NexGWorkx, owned by Malvern Hills Science Park, offers something similar: ‘Testbed as a Service’. NexGWorkx has been involved in a private 5G network that seek improves safety on construction sites, in partnership with PLINX. See here.
WM5G has over a dozen transport products and services under development.
“These are based around exploring operational efficiencies, supporting expansion betting more people to use services and connecting them better, and improving the customer experience,” explains Chris Holmes, a director at WM5G.
The first generation trials included Appyway, which improves parking by deploying sensors sensors that report back the availability of parking spaces real-time. Another, Vivacity, took advantage of the CCTV cameras fixed at road junction sensors, only instead of fining motorists, it gauges the density of traffic.
GoMedia did something similar, only counting passenger volumes on trams. It also reports back in real-time – something not possible with manual sampling. And Ericsson has demonstrated a proof-of-concept that uses the infastructure itself to monitor user density, anonymously.
Ericsson’s innovation used the signal from the handset to look at the scattering of the data and determine how many road users were active. Ericsson’s mast-as-a-sensor initiative uses machine learning to turn the radio wave characteristics into vehicle counts. Data already comes from analog sensors – but these could be removed, as a 5G mast covers wider area.
Several experiments have endured. The region has a 5G road sensor network, with weather sensing as well, in partnership with Transport for West Midlands.
One discovery that WM5G has absorbed is that real-world business cases of 5G really need a solid uplink, which is rarely hyped.
“Three of those projects used upload, rather than the much talked about download”, observes Holmes.
The rail network is also getting some 5G attention in three trials. The West Midlands was the first tram system in the UK to use 5G. These projects provide something similar for network planners – determining the real-world usage.
Two of the projects are vital for safety: monitoring in real-time the state of a train’s pantograph – the apparatus that connects the carriage to the overhead lines, and the state of the track itself. Transmisson Dynamics’ Jenny Hudson explains that kinks and cracks in the overhead wire are harbingers of trouble to come.
“Breakages can cause potential disruption to service and in extreme cases, risk to life as well.” The longer those go unresolved, the greater the danger to the public.
The hoIistic pantograph damage assessment system uses Streams high definition image processing which provides measurements of the wire stagger and carbon wear. JR Dynamics, Newcastle University, Angel Trains, West Midlands Trains and AQ Ltd have teamed up to produce it. Angel trains is a rolling stock leasing company, West Midlands Trains an operating company.
The project sends alerts to the train operating companies (TOCs) as quickly as possible.
High resolution is footage is required, and this needs high bandwidth network capacity. This is also an example where the higher capacity uplink path of 5G is vital, allowing use cases not possible before.
Health and social care
Connectivity can make a difference in terms of improving the region’s health. WM5G has examined a range of areas where 5G can be applied, ranging from prevention, to managing long-term conditions, to emergency response.
One headline-grabbing initiative saw the region host the UK’s first ultra-sound scan over a 5G network. The demonstration, in 2019, was the first showcase of how 5G and virtual augmented reality over the new network.
The greater bandwidth offered by 5G allowed the scan to be performed on the go, and the information relayed to a consultant to make an instant diagnosis. Long-term, the technology could result in fewer patients being required to book in as out patients at the hospital.
While that was a demo, WM5G also allowed five care homes in the region to be connected, allowing residents to receive full GP consultations. GPs could perform ‘ward rounds’ remotely using IoT capabilities. That’s turned into a mature operational system planned for use in thirty care homes.
More recently, WM5G has been involved in a new, less invasive form of endoscopy, using tiny cameras the size of a large vitamin pill, to scan and photograph a patient’s small intestine to check for abnormalities. Capsule endoscopy requires a laptop and a data recorder, but it’s far less invasive than the long flexible endoscope currently used by clinicians. The potential for making this mobile is obvious – a kit can be mailed to patients rather than requiring them to make an out patient visit. And the need, with a cancer backlog caused by the pandemic reaching two million patients, is obvious. See www.bit.ly/3GyN8JS.
With three 5G private networks on stream, each at a 5prinG hub, there’s plenty of opportunity to experiment without breaking the public network.
I Spy Strangers
One of the 5prinG smart cities projects from Aralia can help with the menace of flytipping. Aralia has developed an AI-enabled camera which can operate in low light at remote locations. Onboard algorithms can detect the illegal dumping of waste, and help authorities to identify the flytippers. The system runs continuously, with autonomous monitoring of specified regions of interest within the system’s field of view. Alerts are sent in real-time giving the location of the fly-tipping incident, plus additional information such as the colour of the car. The system is also being tested to help detect trespassing on UK railways, with installations at two railway stations.
Data mining to find stolen cars
The combination of 5G and artificial intelligence is being developed to look for unusual patterns in traffic to combat car theft. For example, thieves will use a car for transporting the gang to steal cars, and then drive in a convoy to their destination. Such a pattern can be recognised, so that the police can react before a report of theft has been made by the owner. Video surveillance operator Bikal is working with the University of Kent to develop the system. Bikal and Kent are also examining new ways that police might to react to the detection, by deploying mobile police cars and drones. The project takes advantage of the edge technologies within the Wayra accelerator.
PLINX makes a network of sensors that improves safety on construction sites. The company, based at Malvern Hill Science Park, PLINX has been working with the Worcestershire 5G testbed.
Primarily used to protect workers hearing by mapping the soundscape of dangerous areas such as construction sites, it incorporates microphones into ear defenders. The system currently uses its own proprietary wireless technology, and logs on-site hazards such as close proximity to machines through a purpose-built platform. The data gathered is used to demonstrate compliance with health and safety guidelines, and identify high-risk hazards.
Sensors are placed around the site and attached to machinery and around the perimeter of an exclusion zone. A tag attached to a worker’s hard hat alerts them if they are near a hazard. It also monitors if their behaviour is considered hazardous. If it is, the worker is notified and an event is logged in the platform.
The product is being used by HS2, and has been put to use during the Covid-19 pandemic to help maintain social distancing. Data can be analysed to improve worker safety, and reduce the potential of an outbreak.
PLINX is designed so that all the processing and analysis of hazardous scenarios is done at the edge of the network, on the wearers device. This allows the tags to be smaller and lighter, as they need to communicate with the network less frequently, making them easier for the user to wear.
A PLINX TeamTag can understand its relationship to other tags nearby, but does not have the ability to consider other activity occurring elsewhere in the system which could make wearers activity more hazardous.
With its higher bandwidth and greater speeds, 5G will enable the PLINX safety system to share data in real-time to identify worker movements on site. The ability to respond immediately to changing circumstances will significantly increase the safety of operations on complex development sites. This will increase both efficiencies and provide valuable data to plan future site layouts better.