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Innovation Briefing issue 11 | Smart Junctions

  • 9 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 26 Sep 2022
  • Last modified 20 Sep 2022
Matt Warman talked about a number of significant announcements when he attended the Testbeds and Trials at the Smart Junction 5G conference. These include the £250million Open Network R&D funds supporting the supply chain diversification strategy.

Reflecting on a comment from EE’s Andy Sutton that Open RAN is not ready for prime time right now, Warman said: “It is that money that the UK is genuinely trying to lead the world with, to get some of that work done faster than it could be done elsewhere. The Future Open Networks Challenge, £25 million for research, will take these things further and faster to embed greater openness and interoperability into networks from the start. It is a really important part of working with academics, with researchers, and with telecoms companies to make that open by default.”

The aspiration is to enable the UK government and industry to draw on a more diverse range of vendors, and built into this is compatibility testing.

Warman also looked to the benefits of working internationally. “It’s critical that countries work together, the private sector as well as the public sector,” he said. “We have a project with the Republic of Korea on the cutting edge of R&D that is hugely important. Samsung is obviously an enormous player in this area. It’s brilliant that we were able to work alongside the Koreans to make that a reality.”

He also talked about TIN, the £10million Telecommunications Innovation Network competition with Digital Catapult, Cambridge Wireless, the University of Bristol and West Midlands 5G working together to establish and oversee that network which was recommended by the diversification task force.

Ministers are not supposed to have favourite projects, but it was clear at the 5G Realised conference last year that Warman, then Minister for Digital Infrastructure, had a soft spot for Smart Junctions 5G. In the topsy-turvy situation with ministers of the midsummer we saw his replacement resign, Julia Lopez and Warman slot back in, he’s now reliquished the position once more to Julia Lopez.

The Smart Junctions project demonstrated a use case and addressed both the challenges and benefits of open networks. Led by sensor and software AI technology company VivaCity, the project showed the benefits of real-time traffic control and the cost savings from rolling out smart junctions. The use case proved the business model and it is hoped that the project will be expanded. The key metric is that the technology cut journey times by up to 23 per cent. The implementation of the 5G private Open RAN network took a multi-vendor approach, looking at cutting the cost and making that scalable, and to address security VivaCity worked with its suppliers to prioritise cyber security -  Weaver Labs led the security work package.

The project, much like Liverpool 5G, has also demonstrated to the local authority the benefit of owning and managing the network to be able to use it for their own use cases, cut their costs, benefit from enhanced connectivity, and also to be able to rent out the capacity.

The VivaCity vision-based sensors have core capabilities to count, track and classify various modes of transport. They are adaptable in their approach: things such as air quality, sustainable modes of transport such as bikes, pedestrians and e-scooters, or even haulage prioritisation. There are more vehicles on the roads these days and the technology used to manage them has been around since the 1990s. The step-change deployed by VivaCity is a reinforcement learning approach to traffic signal control. If we look back at coordinated traffic control in the 1990s, it was very much congestion-focused. The automation for the time was unusual and meant the high costs were favourable. They were accepted. Roll forward to today and it’s a very different world we’re experiencing.

Light Relief

The VivaCity traffic optimisation model builds from a single set of traffic lights through local to citywide and regional. Each smart junction has a virtual occupancy zone to see how the movement of traffic and queues change throughout the day. This isn’t just traffic, it includes pedestrian and cyclist zones. The modes of transport are identified at the edge and the data sent to the cloud where the VivaCity reinforcement learning agent sits. It takes that raw data and decides on an action based on the training that’s been in simulation. Simulations are run before deploying anything on the street so as not to cause major accidents while training and validating the system for real world control. The agent makes a decision and sends it down to the traffic controller cabinet to control the traffic lights.

As part of this project, VivaCity has been developing the user interface that Transport for Greater Manchester can use daily to analyse what’s happening in its network. It feeds through live occupancy data on different arms of the junction and can be used to validate what sort of decisions the agent is taking to see that it’s making sensible actions based on the occupancy. Traffic is controlled in stage movements and phase movements. Latency graphs show real-time analytics of what is happening with the network.

The first deployment, for Testbeds and Trials, has been on a busy stretch of the A6 in Salford, Greater Manchester. It’s a main corridor to the city centre which gets very congested and there are many network issues because of the geography, Salford University and multiple train stations along the route. There are nine smart junctions, with 57 sensors to cover every single one of those junctions, including their upstream to collect journey time data.

VivaCity developed and repackaged the Benetel 5G equipment and is looking to further development to integrate 5G technologies into production hardware. It has to be 5G to give the low latency for a real-time connection, and because the available N77 spectrum uses 5G equipment. In Cambridge and Peterborough VivaCity has used a wired ethernet connection but has found this prohibitively expensive to scale, with lots of unknowns in terms of ducting and infrastructure which derail timelines and also costs. Although much more scalable, a public network offers its downsides, as experienced in instances within other smart junctions trials due to it being susceptible to congestion at peak times – precisely when the real time data is most needed. It has proved its worth with significant reductions in journey times and reduced pollution from vehicles idling at lights. VivaCity expects that as more coordinated junctions are added there will initially be a multiplier effect on improvements in traffic flow until an optimal level is reached.

Weaver Labs’ core expertise is networks and software. Its skillset was the right one not only to deliver a network that could deliver the objective of VivaCity’s use case but to work alongside TfGM on the strategy setting for the whole region and a new outlook for innovative business models in telecoms. Weaver Labs brought its technical and commercial proved to be a necessary combination to make this project a long-term success for private networks in public sector. On the technical side, Weaver Labs delivered a pioneering setup, highly innovative, scalable, replicable and affordable using edge-cloud for OpenRAN. This was surrounded by challenges which were presented in the lessons learned panel at the event. All project partners as well as DCMS agreed that OpenRAN technology is in its infancy, and the partners showed resiliency and adapted the project’s objectives and ambitions to deliver despite this. Hannah Tune, from TfGM underlined the lack of skills within the public sector to deploy and manage telecoms infrastructure and how up-skilling has been central to this project

On the commercial side, Weaver Labs and TfGM proved the business case for publicly owned networks. This has been a topic of interest not only for Manchester but also widely discussed in the UK. It was demonstrated that a 5G network built using publicly owned assets, and operated using Cell-Stack (Weaver Labs’ cloud-based management tool) can provide all the value added to the city, while showing significantly improved costing model. The 5G Smart Junctions solution scales, because is based on infrastructure sharing and a collaborative economy.   

Mohammad Lari,

former Head of Cross-Government and International Coordination for the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, looked at the bigger picture into which Smart Junctions 5G fits “DCMS and the investments that we’ve made over the years, the policies and the strategies that we’ve developed in coordination with the investments and policy thinking that the industry has done, the local authorities have done and reverted back to us with.

“All of that accumulates into strategic aims and those aims are threefold,” he explained, and he laid out his three elements for sustainability. The first being a catalyst for change. “That catalyst is based on real challenges, whether it is the challenge for an individual or a community. It’s the only way we can achieve greater sustainability of the environment that we live in, or the technologies that we utilise. There needs to be a challenge.”

The second element for sustainability Lari highlighted was the people: “It’s the creative spirit. It’s the individuals behind the change, who recognise that there’s a change and they want to do something about it. And they want to do it in a way that perhaps has been tried and tested, but they want to tweak it, or something that they’ve come up with on their own, or something that’s just an effort, perhaps not getting to the right solution on day one, but getting to it eventually.”

His third element is perhaps the one most identified with the Testbeds and Trials Programme. “The third part of a sustainable solution is innovation, to drive growth. Innovation to drive the economic recovery for the country, and also the economic recovery of the local communities that we reside in.”

The Smart Junction 5G conference formed something of a bookend, with Lari looking back at the legacy of the 5G Testbeds and Trials and Warman looking forward to the new Future Networks programmes. But whatever part of the programme it forms, there was universal agreement that less time spent waiting for traffic lights to change is a very good thing.

Innovation Briefing 11th Edition

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