The outcome of Darwin’s ubiquitous communications demonstration in Cornwall

In July 2021, Darwin performed a live demonstration of its ubiquitous communications technology in Cornwall. By switching seamlessly between satellite and terrestrial networks, this technology enables devices or vehicles to stay connected even in areas with variable coverage.

In this post, Rodrigo Barreto, Darwin’s lead architect, gives some background on the demonstration and talks about what we learnt from it.

It is commonly found that innovation needs to be physically demonstrated to gain traction. As with the saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, a live proof of concept (POC) – the demonstration of an innovative idea by the live use of a minimum viable product in a realistic scenario – is worth more than a thousand slides. It unlocks cognition, enabling stakeholders to imagine the possibilities created by the innovation. It builds momentum, bringing partners closer to achieving a common goal. It quiets naysayers, showing concrete achievements that function as yardsticks solidly planted in the ground, marking the boundaries for further development.

With all that in mind, we at Darwin were really anxious and excited to plan for a live POC. Unfortunately, not all was on our side in our efforts to get it done within the originally intended timelines.

When we first conceived the live POC, the COVID-19 pandemic was still rife, claiming the lives of thousands of people living in care homes. Our original impulse was to plan for a mobile health unit which would be able to bring help, by means of mass testing, to care homes in countryside locations, where sometimes terrestrial cellular connectivity is poor. We envisioned that health professionals would benefit from uninterrupted communications with health service response centres by using Darwin’s converged satellite and mobile communications solution.

While this was thought up around Q2 2020, human resources were tied up with design work and physical resources were still to be acquired; this included the vehicle, which would then need to be adapted to required health service standards and equipped with networking equipment and antennas. All while business activity, or business activity as we knew it before 2020, was severely hampered.

Eventually, by May 2021, we had all the individual elements that we needed, plus the logical design and software implementations required for the end-to-end solution. The van that we had acquired was last to be delivered, as the physical installation of antennas, implementation of internal power circuits and outfitting of the interior proved to be time-consuming and, in addition, was impacted by a COVID outbreak within the team working at the vehicle conversion workshop.

At this point in time, mass COVID testing at care homes had already been implemented and vaccination of vulnerable people was well underway. The opportunity to help had passed, and we had to adapt our plans to more generic use cases.

One of the key points of the solution was being able to provide seamless connectivity in areas where either satellite or terrestrial networks presented reception not-spots: geographical areas where devices can’t connect to the network. To demonstrate this, we ended up selecting the Cornwall region, which, because of its topology, has areas which are challenging for both types of networks.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it is not a very different situation preparing for the first live demonstration of an innovative solution. It took a real team effort from sponsors, partners and suppliers to design, build and test the solution prior to demonstrating it in the field. As much as we would like to take full credit for the achievement, it wouldn’t be right not to mention the enormous contribution of all parties involved behind the scenes:

  • The European Space Agency: Due to the rigour ESA required in the definition of this project, progressing with the high-level and low-level designs of the connectivity solution was a straightforward step.
  • Telefónica O2: In addition to providing the lab-based infrastructure we used at Harwell Campus, including a private 5G network which we could use to speed up our investigations into mobile connectivity, O2 provided strong project and solution management and extensive support.
  • Hispasat: Provided extremely valuable support and consultancy, which helped Darwin to quickly move up the learning curve of satellite communications. The dedication of Hispasat engineers involved with integration for the data path and with the initial commissioning of the Darwin van’s terminal went well above their professional duties.
  • Kymeta: Not only loaned the satellite antenna and modem used during the demonstrations, but also worked closely with us to fine-tune link budget calculations, and provided several hours of field and remote support to troubleshoot antenna alignment issues.
  • FatPipe: Supplied the SD-WAN equipment in a timely manner and gave us access to an extremely dedicated support team, keen on going the extra mile to demonstrate equipment functionality and to diagnose configuration issues in the end-to-end path between vehicle and server at our laboratory.
  • Amazon (AWS): A detailed account of our experience working with AWS is available here. For the live POC, AWS consultancy was extremely valuable in getting the IoT Core and Greengrass functionalities, required for the telemetry use case, working and integrated with the other parts of Darwin’s cloud-based ‘as-a-service’ solution.
  • Cartwright: Working under very adverse conditions due to COVID disruptions, Cartwright’s engineers and technicians marched on, delivering the van adaptations to a high professional standard, and delivered the modified vehicle as soon as it was feasible to do so.

The departure from Harwell to our initial destination, Truro, was filled with expectation. Although the end-to-end solution had been tested locally around our lab at Harwell Campus, there was always the worry that something might break up or malfunction once we were a fair distance from our base. In testament to the detailed design, meticulous integration and thorough testing done in preparation for the journey, not a single thing malfunctioned in transit to Cornwall, and we were all clear to start testing our use cases during the following days.

Test cases included telemetry, communications, video streaming, file transfers (uploads and downloads) and general web browsing. For telemetry, we used ESA’s Air Quality Platform (AQP) to monitor location, temperature, humidity and the concentration of gases (CO2 and NO2). We adapted the AQP software to extract the data and send it through our connectivity solution to our cloud applications, and to present the results by means of web-based dashboards.

As we carried out the test cases, we were ecstatic to confirm that the impact of switching between satellite and terrestrial cellular networks was unnoticeable from a quality-of-experience point of view. Later, when we analysed the massive amount of data collected during the two days of testing, we were also elated to verify that, although we were out of coverage between 10% and 20% of the time for each of the networks, the convergent solution increased the overall availability of connectivity to 99% of the time.

If it is true that there is no rest for the wicked, it is also true that luck favours those who wake up early. Not only did we enjoy the great weather and scenery of Cornwall during our tests, but our last activity, taking pictures and filming our van using drones, happened by chance, with the on-the-spot kind consent of the estate manager, at one of the most gorgeous locations in St Mawes: the grounds of Place Estate.

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.

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