While it’s generally assumed that driverless cars will one day become widely deployed, the obstacles still to be overcome before fully autonomous vehicles can safely operate everywhere on public roads seem daunting. The unpredictability of human drivers—as well as other road users—potentially presents a huge challenge, especially during an interim period when manually-driven and semi-autonomous vehicles would also remain on the road.
Nevertheless many autonomous (and semi-autonomous) vehicles of different kinds are already in service, and these are providing valuable experience in evaluating and learning to overcome these challenges, in a safer environment than the open road.
Autonomous control of machines as well as vehicles demands a reliable wireless connection that is able to handle the massive amounts of data involved, and also to allow the machines to respond rapidly and precisely. This is where the low latency and fast data rate of 5G offers an advantage over earlier technologies—provided that the quality of the connection can be assured.
Private industrial 5G networks, for example one installed by Telia at Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) in Eskilstuna, Sweden at the end of 2019, allow fully automated machinery connected over 5G to be proved in a real working environment. This joint venture with Ericsson was Sweden’s first 5G network for industrial use, and is being used both to develop methods for remote control of construction vehicles and to increase understanding of how connected and fully automated machines can benefit Volvo CE’s customers.
Similarly, a private network forms the ideal basis for managing the logistics in a large sea port. Several ports around the world, including the Port of Tacoma in Washington State, USA, and the Port of Southampton in the UK, have recently deployed private 5G networks. These are designed to ensure the reliability, capacity and low latency to host services that will include workflow management and asset tracking of containers, as well as enabling autonomous guided vehicles (AGV) to move cargo around the port area. The addition of AI and machine learning analytics would also offer innovations in predictive maintenance and safety monitoring of the port’s cargo-handling equipment.
Agriculture is another environment where 4G and 5G are providing a step change in advancing the development of autonomy, with the aim of improving efficiency and productivity and also positively impacting the resilience of the food supply chain. Sensors and cameras mounted on tractors can provide a constant stream of highly granular data on soil and climatic conditions and crop progress. For example, John Deere’s highly-automated 9RX tractors are able to self-drive, and using arrays of sensors and controllers can process and send tens of thousands of measurements per second to the cloud—not only on soil and crop information but also on the service status of the tractor itself. John Deere also acquired a number of licenses for private 5G factory networks in the recent CBRS (3.5GHz) FCC spectrum auction, for further automating its factories.
At the turn of this year, the 5G Open Innovation Lab (5G OI Lab)–of which Continual is a member–launched an agritech application development field lab powered by a 5G-capable LTE network, which the 5G OI Lab partners can use as a testbed for progressing this kind of technology further. The Food Resiliency Project is based around two farms in Snohomish County, Washington, and provides a virtual and physical space for food growers and distributors to collaborate with technology companies in developing IoT solutions for the agriculture sector.
Robot and drone deliveries
In one format, autonomous vehicles are already on our streets, although not yet carrying passengers. In cities like Milton Keynes, UK, friendly little six-wheeled Starship ground robots are autonomously navigating streets and sidewalks to perform grocery and restaurant deliveries. Working over a 6km radius, the robots’ cargo bays can uniquely be unlocked by the recipient using a smartphone app. They have even been heard to thank people who help them past a particularly difficult obstacle. Like with ride-hailing apps, the purchaser can follow the progress of their designated robot on the app screen.
Working in three dimensions rather than just two, drones will also soon be doing our last-mile deliveries. In late 2020, Vodafone and Ericsson achieved successful tests of sky corridors for 5G drones at Vodafone’s 5G Mobility Lab in Germany, collating anonymized mobile user information to help the drone avoid crowded areas on the ground as well as using AI analysis of the data to make sure its flight path remained in areas of good signal coverage—a technology that will ultimately be essential for autonomous cars. It is planned that these professionally-operated drones will soon be able to deliver medical or industrial supplies safely and accurately, and even to be a virtual first responder to an accident scene to provide initial information to emergency services.
Continual will be hosting a panel session at the forthcoming Telecoms Europe Digital Transformation virtual event, on the topic of “What are A3 – analytics, automation and AI – worth to operators, in the mobility space and beyond?”