Darwin Innovation Group

Satellite and 5G firms announce ubiquitous UK communications trial

Space agencies and leading technology businesses test ubiquitous UK communications coverage for transportation market in region of south-west England notorious for poor communications

Satellite-based broadband is increasingly being investigated as a viable alternative to the UK’s fixed broadband network. In the latest development in the area, a consortium comprising Darwin Innovation Group, Virgin Media O2, Amazon Web Services, HISPASAT, the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency has announced tests of ubiquitous communications technology in Cornwall.

Ubiquitous communications technology is designed to make it possible to switch seamlessly between 5G and satellite networks as required by users. This ability is even more pertinent at England’s extreme south-west edge where people have traditionally been starved of assured, high-quality fixed broadband or even basic wireless reception.

As the UK’s operators aim to meet government targets for broadband communications, satellites are increasingly regarded as a viable candidate technology to support connectivity in areas where mobile networks are not available, ensuring high network availability in the countryside, villages, parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, places where the terrestrial network roll-out is likely to take some time to reach or where restrictions exist on the construction of new masts. 

Darwin Innovation Group added that, in practical form, the trial would demonstrate how information can be transmitted from or received by a van equipped with this technology. It will transmit real-time data to the cloud for storage and processing, including speed, temperature and air quality information, so that it is possible to make uninterrupted video or voice calls from inside the van. Darwin Innovation Group is using the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud to store and process the data. Virgin Media O2 and HISPASAT are providing the mobile and satellite connectivity. 

Cornwall was chosen for the trial because it provides a challenge, according to Darwin. It has gaps in mobile coverage and has a landscape that presents challenges for satellite coverage, as hills or vegetation may, at times, mean there is no clear line of sight to a satellite. This means the van will need to switch between both technologies as needed. If neither 5G nor satellite networks are available, the telematics and air quality data the van produces will be stored on board and transmitted as soon as it’s able to connect again.

The consortium is testing use cases for the broadband connections. One such use case is autonomous vehicles processing, interpreting and storing large quantities of information from sensors and autonomous vehicles nearby, in real time. Another is mobile health clinics offering on-the-spot treatment to patients who need immediate care or live in isolated areas – with a reliable internet connection, patients and paramedics could consult remotely with medical experts over video calls.

Other potential areas of interest include on-demand shuttle services offering public transport in rural areas where regular bus services are economically impractical; mining or agricultural machinery operating remotely; delivery drivers updating online records of what has been delivered and to whom in real-time, even when making deliveries in areas without terrestrial coverage; and passenger entertainment services such as streaming television, playing online games or making video calls.

The Cornwall trial builds on the October 2020 launch by O2 and Darwin Innovation Group of the Darwin SatCom Lab, the UK’s first commercial laboratory for 5G and satellite communications, at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus. The laboratory enables companies to explore next-generation connectivity for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) using both 5G and satellite communications.

If the trials prove successful, the consortium plans to make the technology publicly available in the form of a device that can be installed in vehicles on the factory line. The ubiquitous communications device will be produced with the help of Virgin Media O2, the European Space Agency and HISPASAT after the results of this trial have been analysed.

Commenting on the trial and its aims, Darwin enterprise architect Rodrigo Barreto said: “After months of researching, developing, building and testing the minimum viable product, we are showing what Darwin’s mobility solution is capable of, with the beautiful scenery of Cornwall as the background.

“This moment builds on the successful implementation of the Virgin Media O2-Darwin SatCom Lab and wouldn’t be possible without the significant input from partners, such as Virgin Media O2 and HISPASAT, and from suppliers. A great amount of knowledge has been accumulated in getting to where we are now, and this sets us on a great course for our upcoming trials with a driverless shuttle at Harwell Campus and for our next steps in our collaboration with the European Space Agency.”

Sergio Budkin, director of market development at Virgin Media O2, added: “We are very excited to trial these technologies in a very challenging environment. We have been supporting Darwin R&D with the European Space Agency to bring this technology to market and we are very confident that it will provide UK companies with a technological advantage to reshape the way in which they create value.”

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