Unlocking Next-Generation Vehicle Technology with 5G

Peter Stoker, Chief Engineer Connected and Autonomous Vehicle at Millbrook, lifts the lid on the 5G test bed for transport at Millbrook and the ground-breaking work enabled by the AutoAir project.

The 5G testbed for transport at Millbrook Proving Ground, launched last year as the AutoAir project, is a private, fully operational high-speed mobile data network. It was installed to support the development, testing and validation of connected and self-driving vehicles.

As the first network of its kind in the UK, AutoAir really is leading the charge when it comes to innovation. Not only is it supporting developers of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) and associated technologies, it is also helping to position the UK automotive industry as a leader in global CAV and driverless vehicle technology development.

Before we dive too far into the use cases being explored and the impact that AutoAir is already having on future technology and transport infrastructure, it is important to first understand the origins of the testbed.

In 2017, the UK government Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport called for the establishment of 5G vertical sector testbeds and trials. The AutoAir consortium, led by Airspan, which brings together leading lights from the mobile communications and transport sectors, was formed in response to call to action.

The testbed is the only accelerated development programme for 5G technology based on small cells that operate on a neutral host. This makes it a truly unique set up. It allows multiple public and private mobile network operators (MNOs) to simultaneously use the same infrastructure using network slicing, which can radically improve the economics for 5G networks.

5G Mast at the Test Track

As part of the project, the consortium set up 60GHz mmWave mesh radio between small cell sites to connect them to the core network (“backhaul”). This has enabled the consortium to compare this with the costs of deploying fibre. The testbed itself consists of 89 radios, covering 2.3, 3.5, 3.7GHz 4G and 5G spectrum, 60GHz mmWave mesh and 70GHz high-speed vehicle-to-infrastructure links. 59 masts were fitted around Millbrook, linked by 30km of power lines and fibre cabling.

The AutoAir testbed has already yielded significant insight. For instance, it’s provided clarity as to how MNOs, vehicle manufacturers, governments and transport operators could harness neutrally hosted 5G and mmWave spectrum networks in the future for a more cost-effective and connected mobility.

AutoAir’s innovative proposition is a wholesale access neutral host hyper-dense small cell deployment model for transport corridors. It provides a single, shared infrastructure set across multiple MNOs. This makes mobile services on transport corridors more attractive for mobile operators and end users, unlocking a multitude of possibilities.

For example, in the UK, all four existing MNOs would be able to share the same physical network. In addition, other organisations, such as emergency services, road maintenance firms and vehicle manufacturers would be able to run their own private networks on the same shared infrastructure at a fraction of the cost of deploying their own physical networks.

It should be evident that the fledgling stages of the AutoAir testbed were more concerned with transport infrastructure. The reality, though, is that the AutoAir testbed has only really begun to scratch the surface of how 5G technology might be harnessed more widely in the automotive sector.

That is why it is exciting, and hugely important, that the AutoAir testbed is now being operated on a commercial basis. This gives CAV developers the ability to really push the network to its limits and make significant advances in their technology.

Millbrook’s unique environment provides an unrivalled location in which to do this. For instance, developers can simulate weak and strong cell signals and understand the impact of hills and other terrain in a single location, while having access to all data generated during testing. They can also create virtual events using augmented and virtual reality for vehicles on its test tracks, allowing them to test complex scenarios that simply would not be practical, or safe, on public roads.

AutoAir 5G

As a result, a variety of organisations, working on a myriad of uses-cases, are already exploring the capabilities of the 5G network. One particularly interesting, and potentially lifesaving, trial that was successfully run courtesy of AutoAir was the “Smart Ambulance” trial with the East of England NHS.

This pioneering project involved equipping a standard ambulance with state-of-the-art devices and connectivity to create a Smart Ambulance that simulated 5G connectivity. The ambulance was transformed into a unique remote consultation room, able to relay a live video stream to a remote team – potentially saving the time needed to save a life.

And that’s just one example of how the super-fast data transfer afforded by 5G might shape our futures on the road.

Indeed, the 5G testbed at Millbrook is also enabling CAV developers to expedite the testing and development of new infotainment and multimedia technologies. As was demonstrated with the Smart Ambulance trial, 5G facilitates vehicle-to-vehicle (or vehicle-to-remote location) communication in real-time. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This new level of connectivity enables over-the-air software updates in real-time, as well as delay-free video and music streaming, real-time map downloads and more.

Looking beyond road transport, one area explored is that of high-speed rail. Trials were done on the mmWave network, installed by Blu Wireless as part of Autoair, with a view to improving the passenger experience. How often has connectivity on the rail network delayed communication, broken voice calls, and interrupted data? The challenge was to see how effective the deployment of mmWave trackside could be. Using the High Speed Circuit at Millbrook for the work, Blu Wireless, in partnership with McLaren Applied fitted a vehicle with a train antenna system and drove at up to 160mph, whilst streaming data to and from the vehicle. The results were impressive – a steady 1.6GBps, peaking at 3GBps. Work continues to evolve, now looking at infrastructure installations in remote areas – where there may not be ready access to power and fibre.

This new age of connectivity and autonomy is not without its pitfalls. One of the biggest areas of concern in relation to connected and autonomous cars has always been cyber security. With enormous amounts of data being transferred in real-time from vehicle to vehicle, vehicle to infrastructure and beyond, there is little wonder there are concerns over hacking and privacy.

The UK Government in the form of the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles ran a feasibility study competition in 2019/20, looking at the threats to vehicle networks. As a direct result of the Autoair testbed, Millbrook was a partner in a consortium with industry experts Cisco, Telefonica and Warwick Manufacturing Group, looking at the challenges, mitigations and regulatory futures in cyber. This could well pave the way to the creation of bespoke CAV Cyber test facilities in the future, equipping the UK at the forefront of this important area. There is, however, much more work to be done.

The achievements and findings of the AutoAir testbed so far are fundamental steps towards enabling key 5G use cases for CAVs and other transport solutions. The project is also a prime example of why working at Millbrook is so rewarding. Having the opportunity to be ‘in the room’ when cutting-edge technology solutions that could change the future of mobility are being devised and tested is a real privilege. While the AutoAir testbed is, in every respect, a collaborative team effort, I feel a certain amount of pride that it’s our Bedfordshire proving ground that is home to the project.

The final point I’d like to impart is this: the AutoAir testbed will not be a snapshot in time in the development of CAVs, the associated technology and the wider infrastructure. Instead, the testbed will be updated with the latest technology as it nears market reality, and is set to serve the industry as a national standard for many years to come.

Peter Stoker, Chief Engineer – Connected and Autonomous Vehicle at Millbrook

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