Vodafone heads consortium to develop use cases for world’s first 5G marine-focused testbed

Smart Sound Connect Marine 5G mobile private network to be the world’s first 5G marine-focused testbed, cementing UK city of Plymouth’s position at the forefront of marine and maritime innovation

Taking 5G almost literally from the seabed to the testbed, Vodafone, Nokia, Plymouth City Council and Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) have confirmed the first companies to run trials at the Plymouth Smart Sound – the first marine-focused 5G testbed powered by a state-of-the-art 5G mobile private network (MPN).

The maritime city was first announced in November 2020 as the home to the world’s first 5G ocean-based testbed, complementing Smart Sound Plymouth, and it is claimed to be the UK’s premier proving area for designing, testing and developing cutting-edge products and services for the marine sector, and for building and supporting the next generation of advanced marine technologies.

At the project’s heart was setting up a network, known as Smart Sound Connect, to enable ultrafast download speeds and low-latency 5G connectivity to support the development of new marine technology. It will also form the basis of a proposed virtualised testing platform to allow companies to validate ideas and test adjustments in a virtual environment.

Smart Sound Connect incorporates a private 4G/5G marine network to provide full coverage across the coastal proving grounds, in partnership with Vodafone and Nokia, and offshore high-speed communications through Steatite’s Wave Relay mesh network. These networks will be integrated to provide an advanced communication capability from the quayside to more than 20 miles offshore and deliver communications infrastructure across the entire Smart Sound.

The network is the first of its kind and will be free for businesses, academics and government organisations to use in their testing and research on and beneath the waters of Plymouth Sound. Featuring five mobile sites, including one on the Sound’s iconic Napoleonic era fort, the network will provide private connectivity for guaranteed performance. Access to these private networks is delivered through high-performance remote operations centres based in Oceansgate and PML.

Smart Sound Connect has been made possible thanks to £1.8m funding from the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership and the service is fully managed by PML.

“The launch of the ocean-focused 5G network represents another huge step forward for Smart Sound as the UK’s leading testbed for advanced marine technologies,” said James Fishwick, head of Smart Sound at PML. “The high-speed network will allow our integrated fleet of autonomous platforms – which include state-of-the-art data buoys and robotic vessels loaded with environmental sensors – to communicate the unprecedented levels of ocean data they are able to capture in real time.

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“In turn, this will support further advances in high-tech marine innovation while also informing the world-leading scientific research being carried out here in Plymouth.”

Vodafone UK business director Nick Gliddon added: “Smart Sound Connect is using cutting-edge innovation to accelerate developments in marine technology through 5G. The 5G mobile private network will allow companies to test and develop new ideas and use cases beyond the shore’s edge in a way that was not previously possible. Plymouth is helping the UK to become a global leader in this field.”

Some of the first companies to make use of the 5G environment are Marine Assured Autonomy Testbed (MAAT), Requirements for Operational Assurance of Data Standards (ROADS) and the Bounty Project.

Led by Lloyd’s Register and the National Physical Laboratory, the MAAT programme aims to see the creation of a fully synthetic and virtualised environment to test, prove and assure marine autonomy scenarios by utilising live data from Smart Sound Connect on a digital platform. This “digital twin” environment will form the basis for a marine autonomy certification and classification programme for autonomous vehicles.

ROADS is an international collaborative programme to develop specific digital standards and measurements.  The creation of such standards will be supported by, and coordinated through, leading UK agencies and RTOs, including the National Physical Laboratory, which are partnering with Lloyd’s Register and Ocean Futures on the MAAT programme.

The Bounty Project is an educational and public programme that utilises Bounty’s End, a replica sailing vessel from Mutiny, a TV series from UK broadcaster Channel 4. The project will see live cameras and data sensors mounted on the vessel to provide live streaming from voyages around Plymouth Sound, to be used publicly and in schools and colleges.

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