The latest millimetre wave communications networks have catapulted the Millbrook Proving Ground, in the UK into a global centre of the latest connectivity technology. Peter Stoker, Chief Engineer, and David Kernohan, Business Development Manager Connected and Autonomous Vehicles at Millbrook discuss the latest technology at the Proving Ground in Bedfordshire and some learnings from their partnership with Blu Wireless on the AutoAir project.
The Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire UK, has become one of the leading test sites in the world for the latest 5G technologies and how they can be used in a wide range of very different applications. The site has been used for testing all kinds of automotive technology over the past 50 years, including the latest supercars being put through their paces on the high-speed tracks.
The communications testbed stems from the AutoAir 5G Testbed for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. Led by Airspan, the project brought together McLaren Applied Technologies, the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey, Dense Air, Real Wireless, Quortus, and Celestia Technologies Group.
In addition to the extensive private sub 6GHz, 4G and 5G infrastructure, the testbed included a hyper-dense small cell millimetre wave network from Blu Wireless, with 22 Blu Wireless nodes installed on 11 poles spaced 300m around the 2 mile high-speed test track. A separate millimetre wave mesh network was installed up in the hills of the test site, and both networks provide a leading-edge test capability.
The 700 acre Millbrook Proving Ground was built in the late 1960’s as a vehicle test centre with a variety of roads and terrains, but it had never been connected, there was just one cellular mast from a mobile operator. “We knew connectivity was the direction the automotive industry was going. Connected vehicles are here now, every new vehicle has a SIM, so there’s a lot of work on the connectivity side to be done,” said Kernohan.
One challenge was that the 18 month AutoAir project was very, very different from what Millbrook traditionally does. “We crash things, we blow things up, so getting into telecoms was very different” he said. One of the main attractions to us, which is very Blu Wireless specific, was the challenge of getting one gigabit per second from a moving car, at 160mph…and that’s where it all started!”
The 5G millimetre wave network provides high bandwidth, low latency communications links to high speed vehicles, something that is not possible with an ordinary 5G network. The project open day demonstrated live 4K ultra high definition (UHD) video to and from vehicles travelling at 100mph, and eight 4K UHD links to a bus travelling around the site.
“This operates in the upper niche, unlicensed spectrum which is very interesting,” said Stoker. “I haven’t seen anyone operating in the same spectrum, it’s really unique, really interesting and Blu Wireless operate in their own special space. It opens up many different applications.”
The small cell transceivers were set up with power and a high bandwidth link over a fibreoptic network built for the project. One next step is to look at how the cells can be powered by solar panels.
“It could be that you don’t need a lot of infrastructure to put the technology out in places that are hard to reach,” said Stoker.
This compares to the sub 6GHz 5G network that was installed alongside the millimetre wave network. “For the first five months 5G was all about digging – 80% of the effort is in the civil works, fibre ducts, optical switches, radio units, software,” he said, “We put in 30km of ducting, power and fibre, so we now have that – we put in 59 masts with 89 radio heads.”
“One of the aims of AutoAir was to look at the types of infrastructure you need in various situations, hilly, rural, motorway, trees, rain, and from that you are able to determine the coverage,” he said. “That’s been really significant.” This has demonstrated the performance and capabilities of millimetre wave technology in real world environments.
Initially the system was set up was at 60GHz which had issues with oxygen absorption but the performance improved significantly at 70GHz. This gives much great range with the same data throughput. “This was the world’s first deployment of 70GHz, so that was a milestone. Suddenly you realise you are able to go for links over a distance – if you can double the distance you halve the infrastructure so that’s a huge impact on the roll out of the technology.”
Millimetre wave for a multitude of applications
The high-speed testbed has been instrumental in a number of demonstrations of the value of 5G technology, from high-speed transport for trains to video from an ambulance.
“Most connectivity tasks today would be fine with good 4G. Where 5G steps in is the ability to ship large data bandwidths at low latency. New applications can then be developed and facilitated with mmWave – that’s revolutionary” said Stoker.
“Looking at car to car video communication, we started with Facetime at 100mph, but that was slow because of the internet connection. Then we went to Google Duo which is device to device and is contained within the boundaries of the private network, reducing that latency.”
Demonstrations of streaming CCTV from a bus could show the value of the technology. The video can be streamed from the bus and monitored remotely by AI algorithms at the control centre, rather than relying on the driver. A key advantage is that the millimetre wave will not interfere with the cellular links to the bus and passengers.
But it’s not just about all kinds of high-speed vehicles. The high bandwidth and low latency of the millimetre wave network has been used for immersive video, delivering multiple streams of data to virtual reality displays both in the office and in vehicles. The technology opens up a wide range of new opportunities.
The real challenge is keeping the network going and keeping it current. “We are very keen to keep a test environment going, and 5G projects are always welcome. Our challenge was to make it a commercially viable venture with an expanded customer base,” said Kernohan. “This is difficult as we are breaking a lot of new ground. The biggest selling point of the testbed is the testbed itself – customers start thinking about new ways of doing things. After all, where else can you find a confidential and private 70GHz test network that is available 24/7/365,” he said.
The flexibility of the millimetre wave implementation from Blu Wireless is a key part of the testbed for Millbrook. “We need to work closely with Blu Wireless to best display the technology to the mainstream customer base. It’s not just providing the kit, it’s a service, it’s the agility and the flexibility of the technology that matters,” said Stoker. “Testers are modifying the systems a hundred times in a morning to meet the requirements of the customers and this is done in software, rather than on foot to the masts for a diverse range of applications.
The engineers at Millbrook are used to being at the leading edge of automotive technology. Now, with connected vehicles, they are at the leading edge of wireless technology. “Eventually this low latency and high bandwidth will come into the mainstream,” said Stoker. “This Blu Wireless capability is two to three years ahead of where we are today.”