5G and satellite: Harnessing two technologies for a range of business use cases
Alyson Edmunds, Head of Digital Innovation at O2, finds out more about how 5G and satellite networks are working together to provide critical connectivity for exciting new business use cases.
I suspect that many people think of 4G/5G and satellite as two entirely unrelated technologies, serving different markets and solving different challenges. That’s why I was so interested to meet Daniela Petrovic, founder of DARWIN project, earlier this month. Daniela has been working on 5G and satellite communications in the UK as part of Project Darwin, a four-year trial programme supported by O2 and the European Space Agency and based in the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.
What prompted the marriage between the two technologies?
Our starting point was the recognition that a number of exciting potential technologies depend on total coverage. While all the networks are working to improve coverage throughout the UK, there are still remote and inaccessible areas where coverage is either unviable or simply not possible with current technology. Initiatives such as the Shared Rural Network help, of course, but we need to understand that seamless and complete 5G coverage is a long way off.
That’s why O2’s parent company, Telefónica, started to explore the opportunity of partnering with the satellite industry – which led us to establish the first commercial laboratory for 5G and satellite communications in the UK.
We have developed a seamless communications device that switches automatically, and seamlessly, between the 4G/5G and satellite networks as coverage demands – providing 100% coverage from a single device.
What are some of the situations in which being able to harness both 5G and satellite might be most useful?
One of the first use cases where we can implement the solution is in retail, for last mile delivery. Tracking deliveries is clearly nothing new, but being able to track high value assets effectively in rural locations isn’t always possible. Transporting whiskey from distillery to port, for example, carries a risk. By combining 5G and satellite, high value assets like these can be tracked effectively and securely.
Staying on the theme of transport, we’re working on a proof of concept for this technology on the Caledonian Railway. It. aims to. demonstrate that trains can, at last, provide an uninterrupted, hotel-like infotainment service throughout your journey, and every carriage can be fitted with emergency phones that will work, regardless of location.
A third sector we’ve been looking at is maritime, where vessels will be able to benefit from 5G, or any terrestrial signal, around islands and ports – switching to satellite once they reach open waters. It will reduce the cost of maritime communication substantially, because relying entirely on satellite is very expensive.
I believe that Project Darwin is concerned with harnessing the two technologies for autonomous vehicles?
That’s right. The idea is that satellite communications can play a crucial role in the extension of 5G networks so autonomous vehicles remain connected, even in remote and harder-to-reach areas.
It’ll enable us to provide reliable coverage to the whole of the UK – not just in areas that are 5G enabled – which has the potential for fast tracking the deployment of autonomous transport in the UK, particularly for specialist requirements like last mile delivery.
Are there any other benefits that 5G and satellite communications can bring to transportation and delivery?
We’re also confident that the blend of the two technologies can bring environmental benefits. One of the proofs of concept already being tested at the Darwin SatCom Lab tracks the CO2 emissions of the vehicles using LIDAR sensors. By using satellite imagery to see the areas the vehicles are travelling through and monitor local biodiversity, the laboratory team is able to calculate the emissions savings of taking different routes based on carbon capture from nearby trees.
Combining technologies to solve business challenges is just one example of the pioneering work that O2 is doing in innovation labs throughout the UK.
Our Darwin SatCom Lab is now open to companies looking to explore next generation connectivity solutions for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs). If you’d like help to solve your business challenge, rapidly prototype technology solutions and realise your ideas, then you can tell us about the challenges you face at the Darwin SatCom Lab website.
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