There’s a lot more to 5G and mobility than just autonomous driving. The new mobile telecommunications standard is going to bring many different advances in passenger traffic and freight transport. Pilot projects are already giving us a glimpse of the forthcoming changes in railway, road and waterborne transport. One thing is clear: things are on the move.
2019 saw the debut of Germany’s first train controlled remotely via 5G. The driver controlled this “ghost train” from a control centre instead of from the driver’s cabin. In fact, “ghost train” is not quite correct: cameras in the driver’s cabin filmed the view along the test route – a trip of almost 400 metres through the Ore Mountains – live and in high quality. Meanwhile, the driver was able to control the train using an exact replica of the control systems. This is an innovation that might well mean tomorrow’s train drivers will have the option of working from home. The project was realised on the Smart Rail Connectivity Campus, where Chemnitz University of Technology and over 100 partners, financed by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, are working on ideas for tomorrow’s mobility.
Thanks to network slicing technology and the mobile edge cloud (MEC), the images from the camera reached the train driver’s cabin in under ten milliseconds – faster than the human eye’s ability to detect movement. Using network slicing, different requirements – in terms of data transmission or latency, for example – can be met simultaneously. Each application can be allocated its own “network slice”. The different virtual networks come together in a central network structure. With the mobile edge cloud, the data can be processed quickly in a nearby computing centre. There is no need for them to be transported to a central point and back again via the mobile network operator’s network. This gives the provider a considerable amount of freedom as regards what can be offered in terms of (user-specific) connectivity.
What are the odds that Germany will soon see its first remote-controlled passenger trains in service? The technology already seems to be available, at least for shorter journeys. But many people would prefer to ease themselves into this remote-controlled future a bit more slowly. This is why the leaders of these projects assume that the technology will find its way into freight transport first. In the Ore Mountains, development continues: the Federal Government plans to invest up to 15 million euros in part-financing of an infrastructure for radio applications in the railway sector along the route between Schwarzenberg and Annaberg-Buchholz. Research will focus in particular on 5G and the innovations this makes possible in the field of rail transportation.
There’s more to 5G than just the innovations it delivers in the provision of efficient transport services such as safeguarding and controlling the actual driving of the train en route. As a standard applied in public mobile communications coverage, 5G is of course also an important factor affecting the experience enjoyed by rail customers.
5G offers the option of combining a faster Internet connection for customers with access to operational data in real time. With 5G, the Internet connection is strong and stable enough to be used by both the train and its passengers. A practical test in Spain shows that even critical communication connections can be considered safe. This is ensured along the route by transmission masts with special wireless technology. They automatically orient themselves towards the train as it passes, providing the fastest, safest connection possible.
Thanks to the efforts of the railway sector, combined with the problem-solving approaches of telecommunications providers and suppliers, we can expect to see exciting and innovative solutions in this field over the next few years.
From steering to observing road signs, cars are becoming more and more able of taking on tasks for themselves. Tomorrow’s vehicles will also be able to communicate with each other via sensors or cameras, constantly measuring speed and distance from other objects. The use of this technology has the potential to be an enormous boost to traffic safety, since over 90 per cent of all accidents in Germany can be put down to human error.
Tomorrow’s navigation systems will understand more than just street maps, traffic jams and the best alternative route. Their systems are also, increasingly, being fed with details about wet or icy conditions. More and more vehicles are also gathering information about vacant parking spaces and obstacles. Even today, the software of a car gathers data about its condition, providing the driver with notifications if necessary. Thanks to 5G, seamless live exchange of such information is possible, giving drivers one less thing to worry about.
To enable coordination between vehicles, a real-time Internet connection is essential, allowing them to exchange information on acceleration, steering and braking manoeuvres. If a lorry needs to perform an emergency stop, vehicles in its vicinity are informed, giving their on-board computers a chance to react and avoid an accident.
Constant communication makes it possible for networked traffic to flow better. Dangerous or irritating situations can be avoided, such as reaction time issues when braking, distractions and the search for a parking space. Distances could be reduced between individual vehicles and they could be spread out optimally across the network appropriate to the volume of traffic. This would lead to more efficient use of roads and hence no need for them to be expanded. Improved traffic coordination will also reduce the number of traffic jams.
At the major maritime transshipment points in particular, 5G has a vital role to play. At an initial test in the Hamburg’s port between January 2018 and June 2019 an area of 8,000 hectares was networked together using modern technology. Network slicing was paramount in the proceedings. This technology allows networks to be optimised dynamically and flexibly to meet varying requirements. One network might need to have a particularly fast reaction time while another, running in parallel, offers an especially high data throughput.
Amongst other measures taken in the port, ships were fitted with sensors enabling them to gather movement and environmental data. They then passed this on via 5G, allowing the data to be viewed and analysed in real time.
At the same time, those working in the port were also introduced to augmented reality (AR). Employees were supplied with AR glasses that let them access information about projects and buildings or engage in video calls with experts. Real objects and digital representations blended into one. On land, traffic lights were networked into intelligent circuits, enabling lorries to drive through the port swiftly and safely. This in turn led to optimised delivery times.
The example of the Hamburg’s port demonstrates the potential 5G holds for the seafaring world. A 5G network at sea is also conceivable. Mobile providers are already making fast Internet available over a radius of several kilometres around offshore wind farms, and the technology could be upgraded to 5G.
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