Rodrigo Barreto, Darwin’s lead architect, has written this overview of Darwin’s inspiration, achievements and plans for the future. It was originally posted in Portuguese on Portal 5G.
Mobile and satellite communication services have historically developed in parallel. At times, the satellite communications industry has offered telephony services to end users, with the most notable examples including Thuraya, Globalstar and Iridium. These services, however, have limited data communication capacity and relatively low adoption. Otherwise, companies specialising in satellite communications have focused on facilitating the interconnection between radio base stations and telephone exchanges as the main way of integrating the two technological strands.
Thus there is a gap between satellite communications providers and terrestrial mobile service providers, each focusing on the area where they have the greatest competitive advantage and rarely looking for joint solutions for user access. The mobile segment has not been able to develop full geographic coverage for data services, and the satellite segment has not been used to fill these gaps in coverage in an integrated manner. This is what inspired the Darwin Project.
For a technological innovation proposal to gain momentum, the timing needs to be right. In 2019, when the concept for the Darwin Project began to take shape, the following clear trends were already visible:
- an explosion in the number of data connections for devices, with increasing requirements for broadband communication capacity and, in the case of vehicles, the added requirement of mobility
- a decrease in the price of satellite broadband services, although these were almost always provided at a fixed location
- the emergence of flat antennas for broadband satellite communication services, enabling mobile usage through the use of dynamic beam forming and steering
- a developing interest among standardisation bodies in the convergence of satellite and mobile communications, including proposals to study communication using 5G radio forms via satellite from 3GPP Release 16
The idea of combining satellite and terrestrial mobile service networks to enable seamless user access was born. This would allow satellite and terrestrial networks to complement each other, enabling vehicles to benefit from uninterrupted connectivity on the move. Data platform services were added to this concept; these would allow companies to visualise their fleet telemetry data and enjoy specialised services according to their vertical of operation. Finally, taking into account the fact that the future of mobility is tied to autonomy, the theme of connected autonomous mobility joined the mix.
The idea immediately resonated with high-level managers at Telefónica, a company at which Daniela Petrovic, one of the founders of the Darwin Project, had long been acting as delivery director on large transformation projects. In addition to filling several innovation gaps in which Telefónica had an interest, such as use cases for 5G and advanced cases of machine-to-machine connectivity, the idea could benefit from a similar initiative where Telefónica, Hispasat and Renfe had worked together since 2015 to enable continuous broadband access on Spanish high-speed trains.
Telefónica decided that there was merit in offering seed capital – a specific financing model for business projects in their initial phase, usually used by startups – to explore the concept. For greater flexibility, the independent startup format was chosen. This allowed the new company, Darwin Innovation Group, to compete for a grant, in a matched funding format, from the UK Space Agency (UKSA). With the seed capital sponsored by Telefónica UK and a grant approved by UKSA, the Darwin Project was kicked off.
The first phase of the project, under the supervision of the European Space Agency (ESA), the operational arm administering the UKSA grant, served to consolidate the concept. At this stage, in partnership with Telefónica UK, Hispasat and the University of Glasgow, Darwin worked to:
- identify use cases that would benefit from uninterrupted communications and connected mobility
- detail the business requirements of these use cases
- analyse the regulatory environment for autonomous mobility services and for the communication services involved
- analyse and define the evolution roadmap for solution components such as terminal, antenna, core network, business support systems etc.
- map business models and detail the concept of service operations
- develop two patents to protect intellectual property
Following this, or in some cases in parallel, Darwin initiated practical activities to demonstrate the concepts behind the project. These included:
- acquiring Renault Twizy electric vehicles, adapted by StreetDrone for fly-by-wire operation, for use as a software development platform for autonomous mobility
- transforming a van into a Connected Mobile Test Unit, equipped with a flat antenna for satellite communications, an antenna for terrestrial communications, and a hybrid satellite and 5G communications terminal
- developing the SatCom Lab, with a fully integrated environment for satellite and 5G connectivity through a private network provided by Telefónica UK, for the development and testing of terminal and network configurations
- developing embedded and cloud applications that enable IoT communications, the processing of collected data and the graphical presentation of the resulting information via a website
This process culminated in field testing when we used the Connected Mobile Test Unit to assess connectivity levels as we travelled around Cornwall, known for its challenges in relation to both satellite and terrestrial connectivity due to irregular terrain and dense vegetation in certain areas. The demonstration was a success; while connectivity was available 90% of the time for terrestrial mobile services and 80% of the time for satellite communications services, our integrated terrestrial and satellite solution maintained a connection to cloud services for more than 99% of the time. All tested services, such as streaming live video, transferring large files, teleconferencing and browsing web pages, maintained an almost unchanged quality of experience for the user, who could not even notice the transitions taking place between terrestrial and satellite networks.
Separately, Darwin had the opportunity to compete for one of ESA’s new matched funding projects in the area of mobility. Darwin won the tender with the proposal to develop a passenger transport service at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, where both ESA and Darwin are located. The Darwin Autonomous Shuttle service is differentiated by its use of a self-driving shuttle with uninterrupted connectivity using 5G and satellite communications. The main sponsor this time is the insurance company Aviva, which is interested in having access to data to develop new insurance products for autonomous vehicles.
A new Pandora’s box had been opened, and Darwin found itself confronted with the regulations necessary to operate an autonomous passenger service in the UK. With the help of public bodies such as the CCAV (Centre for Connected Autonomous Vehicles), we were able to identify and fulfil the main administrative requirements:
- vehicle import, respecting legal terms (HMRC)
- determining the vehicle as suitable for transit on public roads (DVSA)
- obtaining the vehicle registration plate (DVLA)
- notifying various agencies, public administration bodies and police of the details of the operation
- approval for service operation on the route
During the pilot operation, the necessary operational processes were developed and the safety operators were trained. These operators, for legal reasons, need to be inside the vehicle to intervene in its control if necessary. After this phase and with the appropriate approvals, the service moved to a regular operation phase with open access to campus pass holders and their guests.
As can be seen, three years of intense activities have passed and have already borne much fruit. But there is much more to come in our plans for the future:
- in 2021 we launched operations in Málaga, Spain, where we intend to establish a laboratory with a focus on data security solutions and vehicle autonomy software development
- in 2021 we also started collaboration on the development of software for level 4 autonomous vehicles, and we are working to demonstrate this capability with a view to transferring it to other commercial vehicles
- we are following the latest developments in 5G standardisation, the new launches of flat antennas for satellite communication and the capabilities of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, and we anticipate great evolution of our connectivity solution over 2022 and 2023
- we are developing a prototype integrated terminal and within the next six months we will have equipment certified for use in vehicles in various territories
- in order to leverage our business activity, we will develop virtual network operator capabilities across 2022 and early 2023, building the entire IT platform necessary for our relationship with customers and partners
Finally, we are hungry for innovation and have an immense desire to help create a more sustainable future in the area of mobility. On this journey, we would be honoured to consider commercial proposals to work closely with other companies and institutions.
Rodrigo Barreto, Darwin Lead Architect
Darwin Innovation Group is a UK-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.