International research project 5G-Blueprint off to a flying start
With the official launch of "5G-Blueprint" on 21 September, the international, cross-border research project entered a new phase. Over the next three years, the 28 public-private partners involved (from the Netherlands, Flanders, Switzerland and the Czech Republic) will be investigating how the deployment of 5G can further assist the transport and logistics sector by means of tele-operation, or remotely controlled transport. The project is made possible by the EU under the Horizon 2020 programme.
Regarded as the next phase in anticipation of and in the run-up to fully autonomous transport, tele-operation can make transport and logistics more efficient. It is estimated that around 100 million euros is lost annually in the Netherlands and Flanders due to waiting drivers, inefficient storage and distribution and unnecessary paperwork. Tele-operation is expected to prevent some of these unnecessary costs. After all, with tele-operation, an operator can – thanks to real-time 5G data exchange to and from vehicles, terminals and control rooms – operate a vehicle remotely, and therefore immediately change vehicles when a journey is ended. Tele-operation can also provide a solution to increasing driver shortages, giving a whole new dimension to the job of truck driver or inland navigation skipper.
The start of the project on 21 September was informally compared with a "Le Mans start" by analogy with the famous Le Mans 24 hour race where the racing cars are parked in a row and the participants simultaneously run to their car to start the race. Wim Vandenberghe, project coordinator of 5G-Blueprint, on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, says of that comparison: "This race seems like a simple concept: let some racing cars drive round a circuit and decide who has come furthest after 24 hours. However, a lot more needs to be done than that to run a good race at Le Mans. First and foremost, it must be clear to all those involved behind the scenes what their task is and how they should perform it. And if you look at that in detail, it turns out that there are many more people involved and tasks required than you would expect, not only the drivers, but also mechanics, marshals, crowd managers, logistics staff, catering workers, etc. So everyone has to be facing the same direction at the start to make it a success. And that's exactly what we were aiming for at the kick-off meeting for the 5G-Blueprint project. The concept of tele-operation seems simple as well but it takes a lot of effort and synchronisation under the surface to bring this project to a successful conclusion. I was therefore very pleased to see that the two-day online meeting made it clearer to all 28 participating partners what the exact requirements, tasks and goals of the project are and what is expected of them in the process."
The important logistics corridor North Sea Port (Vlissingen – Terneuzen – Ghent) – Antwerp is the designated pilot area. The border area is particularly attractive because it can show in real-world situations whether and how connections are maintained when borders are being crossed. The use of new 5G telecommunication technology is an important tool in this respect. Vandenberghe: "4G connections are not sufficient for tele-operation. In theory, 5G offers better performance and more guarantees in terms of stability. We will be testing whether 5G also delivers a workable solution for tele-operation in the real world".
The 28 parties involved will investigate four use cases:
- Automated operation of inland navigation
- Automated docking functionality of a truck
- Platooning (driving in convoy) based on Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control (CACC)
- Tele-operation of a truck and barge (basic use case which the other three build on).
The participating partners are now discussing their progress in sub-groups and there is also overarching consultation. The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management is leading the project, while the technical aspects of 5G-Blueprint are being coordinated by imec, a Belgian research organisation.
The first phase of the project, which actually started on 1 September 2020 and will run for three years, focuses on analysis and design. In the last part of 5G-Blueprint, the findings will also be tested physically in the North Sea Port and Antwerp areas. The final outcome of the project will be a complete plan (blueprint) that makes clear how the concept of tele-operation in logistics could be effectively rolled out into day-to-day operations. It will provide answers to questions regarding the technology to be used, recommendations for business models to be applied and governance agreements to be made, as well as other requirements. This will allow the map of the roll-out to be drawn once this research project has been completed.
According to Vandenberghe, this project gives the partners involved a head start on the rest of the world. "Interest in tele-operation is growing worldwide, mainly because more and more people are convinced that fully autonomous transport will take longer than first thought. Various sectors need alternatives that offer solutions now and in the near future. Tele-operation is therefore increasingly seen as the next important step, creating value right from the start and enabling the gradual addition of more and more automated functions. In this way, tele-operation can continue to develop in the direction of autonomous transport at an appropriate pace. However, as far as we know, this project is the first one that really focuses on research and development of all aspects of tele-operation solutions in such an exhaustive manner, considering it as an important transportation paradigm on its own rather than only as a small function to assist fully autonomous vehicles. And that's a very important difference."