Staying connected on the move: Darwin’s ubiquitous communications technology on the road to changing the transportation market

  • Darwin Innovation Group is testing its ubiquitous communications technology in Cornwall.
  • The technology switches instantly between 5G and satellite broadband if one network becomes unavailable, allowing devices to stay connected continuously on the move.
  • Darwin plans to make this technology publicly available in the form of a device that can be installed in vehicles on the factory line.
  • The project is supported by Virgin Media O2, HISPASAT, AWS, AVIVA, UKSA and ESA.

Darwin Innovation Group’s ubiquitous communications technology makes it possible to switch seamlessly between 5G and satellite networks as required. In collaboration with Virgin Media O2, HISPASAT, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Aviva, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA), Darwin is demonstrating this technology in a trial in Cornwall.

Reliable, high-capacity broadband on the move has many uses. For example:

  • Autonomous vehicles need to be able to process, interpret and potentially store large quantities of information from their sensors, and from other autonomous vehicles nearby, in real time.
  • Mobile health clinics could offer on-the-spot treatment to patients who need immediate care or live in isolated areas. With a reliable internet connection, patients and paramedics can consult remotely with medical experts over video calls.
  • On-demand shuttle services could offer public transport in rural areas where regular bus services are economically impractical. The shuttle could receive real-time requests from passengers going to a particular destination and alter its route to pick people up.
  • Mining or agricultural machinery could be operated remotely.
  • Delivery drivers could update online records of what has been delivered and to whom in real time, even when making deliveries in areas without terrestrial coverage.
  • Passengers may need reliable connectivity to keep themselves entertained during a journey, particularly if they’re streaming television, playing online games or making video calls.

5G networks have an enormous capacity for transmitting information and can handle many users simultaneously. Whilst 4G provides the best coverage delivered to date, and population coverage is now very strong, some areas can struggle to get strong signal, so 5G is being rolled out to those areas that need additional capacity most.

Satellites can support connectivity in areas where mobile networks are not available, as satellite broadband can be used anywhere with a clear line of sight to the sky. This means it tends to offer a good connection and ensure high network availability in the countryside, villages, parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty: places where the terrestrial network rollout is likely to take some time to reach, or where restrictions exist on the construction of new masts.

Darwin’s ubiquitous communications technology makes it possible to integrate mobile and satellite connectivity seamlessly, without any loss of data or connectivity when switching between networks. This lets people benefit from both 5G’s high capacity and satellite broadband’s wide reach when travelling; if one network becomes unavailable, another can take its place instantly. The Cornwall trial will demonstrate how information can be transmitted from or received by a van equipped with this technology.

The goal of this trial is to transmit real-time data to the cloud for storage and processing, including speed, temperature and air quality information, and to be able to make uninterrupted video or voice calls from inside the van. Darwin is using the AWS cloud to store and process the data. Virgin Media O2 and HISPASAT are providing the mobile and satellite connectivity. Aviva is providing insurance for the vehicle undertaking these tests as part of its five-year strategic partnership with Darwin.

Cornwall was chosen for the trial because it provides a challenge. It has some gaps in mobile coverage, and it also has a landscape that presents challenges for satellite coverage, as hills or vegetation may at times mean that there’s 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.

Darwin hopes to make its ubiquitous communications solution available to the public in the form of a user-friendly device, which can be installed on the factory line and used without the need for specific technical knowledge. This will be produced with the help of ESA, Virgin Media O2 and HISPASAT after the results of this trial have been analysed.

Rodrigo Barreto, Enterprise Architect at Darwin, said: ‘This is such a great moment for the project! 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 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, said: ‘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.’

Elodie Viau, Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at the European Space Agency, said: ‘The Darwin project will enable logistics to become fully digital while reducing carbon emissions. We need to get data all the time, everywhere – and, to achieve that, space must be seamlessly integrated into terrestrial 5G solutions. I am excited to see Darwin in action, proving that investment in space benefits not only the logistics industry, but also people ranging from shoppers seeking to buy a wide selection of goods at reasonable prices to patients benefiting from remote diagnosis.’

Inés Sanz, Head of Customer Engineering at HISPASAT, said: ‘We are delighted to participate in the Darwin project. For HISPASAT it is an excellent opportunity to show that satellite technology allows perfect connectivity in mobility environments, being a key element for autonomous vehicles where terrestrial coverage doesn’t exist or doesn’t have sufficient capacity. We are convinced that the satellite will play a crucial role in the extension of 5G networks.’

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