Millbrook, in Bedfordshire, is where motor manufacturers go to test prototype cars, and is the site of one of the six UK government funded projects for 5G. In addition to a high speed bowl Millbrook houses a fabulous test route known as the Hill Route, handling circuits, different pavement finishes from all over the world, a skid pan and a mile long straight for speed tests.
A theme which emerged is that 5G isn’t just the next generation, it’s a special generation. Brendan O’Riely, O2 CTO claimed “5G will have a bigger impact than the introduction of electricity”, citing the way it will open up new use cases. An O2 smart cities study found out that 5G sensors for rail predictive maintenance would save £400m. Road sensors and properly managed roads would save 10% of transport time. He explained that 5G, done right will fundamentally change the nation’s transport.
Professor Rahim Tafazolli of the University of Surrey explained that there is a substantial economic benefit. “We are only at the beginning of 5G which is mobile broadband, that’s not real 5G that’s yet to come.” 5G is a fabric of connectivity with flexibility, capacity, and low latency. And the economic benefit is substantial, looking at 5G giving a national GDP increase of 1.45% from improved mobile broadband and 4.23% from improved automation by 2030. The Millbrook test will build on the 5G core built at the University of Surrey which Professor Tafazolli claims is four to five years ahead of any other 5G core developments.
Ian Smith, the 5G Testbeds & Trials Programme Director at the DCMS, sees the programmes as the key to creating new use cases, looking at what we can do with faster connectivity and lower latency. We’ve learnt lessons on spectrum availability and started to build use cases, but most of all he values what the participants have learnt from the value of collaboration. Through all the partner companies there are 100 people working in parallel on the project.
The AutoAir consortium is led by Airspan, with support from the University of Surrey 5G Innovation Centre, Arm, Blu Wireless, Dense Air, McLaren Applied Technologies, Millbrook, Quortus and Real Wireless. Before you start thinking that the new McLaren Speedtail will be the first car with a 5G mobile phone, McLaren Applied Technologies is a separate division which takes the technology 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. It laps at three times the speed of the test coach.
The CEO of Millbrook, Alex Burns sees digital technologies as an important part of the future for the proving ground. A new test centre, specifically for connected and autonomous vehicles is in the process of being built. But AutoAir isn’t waiting for that, Burns is applying the principals of Millbrook’s automotive development work to telecoms. A lot of its work is focused on safety, and self-driving cars are probably the thing which will lead to the greatest reduction in accidents. Burns says that Millbrook’s experience of dealing with different motor manufacturers who share the site while being arch-rivals stands it in good stead for being a neutral host for 5G.
The focus for most of the participants is on safety and security. Moving to driverless cars will make the country’s roads safer, and having more data on where hazards are will help both traditional and driverless cars. Knowing that there is an accident ahead lets cars and drivers see into the future. But that data has to be handled carefully. Not every McLaren driver sticks to 69mph on the motorway and wouldn’t be too happy if all the telemetry information was public.
The 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 and the use of millimetre wave technology means a lot of small cells. The spectrum used is 5G TDD, at 2.3GHz 3.4 GHz to 3.7 GHz and WiGig 57-71 GHz principally used for backhaul. This is perhaps the densest 5G network in the world, wherever you stand you can see half dozen cells.
The network is being run as a neutral host so that AutoAir provides the infrastructure and other operators – be they BT, EE, Vodafone, Three or O2 can connect to and experiment with the network. Processing has been moved from the core to give multi-access edge computing and narrow band gNodeBs (5G basestations) as an integral part of the architecture. One of the critical applications is showing video from surrounding cars. A driver can “see” an emergency vehicle well before it appears in the mirrors and look straight through a car in front, seeing what the cameras in all the nearby cars are looking at and providing similar information back. Managing all this data would be impossible on a national scale so Mobile Edge Computing, a new 5G technology, is used to process and distribute video locally.
Denseair has provided the neutral host infrastructure sharing which is expected to be essential in bringing down the cost of installing a high density mobile network, and shows how multiple networks can play nice as well as looking at the technical feasibility of improving poor mobile coverage in transport corridors, and showing that constant connectivity, low latency, and high throughput can be supported by 5G.
Real Wireless radio planning has identified the sites around the Millbrook estate. There are 22 sites on eleven poles around the bowl alone. The new 5G basestations have been developed by Airspan, using Intel Xeon AVX-512 processors which are specifically designed for this kind of application. They are the worlds first SDR 5G base station, leading in open radio access network, and aimed at reducing the operators reliance on individual vendors. Part of the network flexibility is demonstrated by the masts having a flagpole-like arrangement so that antennas can be swapped out quickly. Infrastructure comes from Blu Wireless equipment with Quortus providing virtualised network capability. Not all basestation sites can be reached by fibre, so the fibre network is supplemented with a WiGig mesh. There is however a lot of fibre run around the state, Paul Senior, CSO at Airspan and CEO of Denseair explained that they have learnt a lot about mud and trenching.
Photo source: Steve Turner - Millbrook
A download speed of 1Gb/s while travelling at 160mph is impressive, but it’s something which is being done regularly at the Millbrook proving ground as a McLaren laps a 3.2km bowl. It’s even more impressive when you learn that the coverage comprises of 22 hyper small mmWave cells which means the lapping car is handing over every two or three seconds, and because for much of the time it’s using two cells it will see a burst rate of 3Gb/s. The teams are learning about more than handover, at these speeds doppler shift starts to become an issue.
But as impressive as it is watching a British 3.8 litre, twin turbo, carbon fibre lap the bowl, knowing that it’s handling 16 x 16 MIMO with beamsteering and future technologies makes it even more so. It’s no wonder the event was packed.
Photo: Stuart Berman (Panel discussion with project delivery partners)
Words by Simon Rockman - Technology Journalist