The more time that passes the more different that transport promises to look. To most commuters travelling just a decade ago, today’s transport would seem pretty radical – app-based travel, WiFi connectivity, and smartphones all providing real-time updates coming high on the list of things that were previously hard to imagine.
To commuters and transport operators today, the idea of unmanned or remote-controlled vehicles, buses, and trains is equally hard to imagine – but this new reality of autonomous or remote-control transport is coming. Jim Taylor of Ondas Networks believes that for autonomous or remotely-driven vehicles and trains to become a reality it will require an expanding capability in communication networks and technology that satisfies the design requirements for safety-critical and mission-critical operations.
In certain mining rail operations in Australia, the technology to enable unmanned trains has been demonstrated, but to bring this reality into densely populated metropolitan centres is a different situation, and as an industry we’re not there yet. To do this across different transport modalities, and to do this across an entire transport network that spans both remote and metropolitan areas also requires a communications capability that has been designed with these disparate conditions in mind. The overarching principles that are non-negotiable are safety and security.
"The overarching principles that are non-negotiable are safety and security."
So, the communications network that enables autonomous or remote control must be highly secure, must have the bandwidth available to support the data flows both up and down, and the data speeds to enable real-time or near real-time, persistent connectivity with the highest levels of reliability and availability. Ondas believes that these safety and mission-critical networks will need to be private, licensed-spectrum based networks in order to provide the highest level of security, reliability, and the necessary isolation from public networks. Over time, the company thinks that as requirements evolve, networks will need to be designed to suit, and not adapt the requirements to fit the networks that are available. It also believes that an open standard is also critical for these private networks, as that will ensure competitive pricing, lower cost of ownership, and higher levels of innovation.
The different countries and markets that intend to adopt autonomous technology will be doing so at different speeds depending on:
- Operational and customer-driven mandates for service
- Systems maturity
- Available spectrum/optimised use of existing spectrum
Transport operators and service providers will need a long-term communications network strategy that is designed to enable existing technology, and the innovations that are on the roadmap – including the path towards automated vehicles and/or trains.
Autonomous vehicles and unmanned aircraft (drones) have already been deployed in a military context and, as the mining operators have demonstrated, the technology can be safely implemented in a responsible way. We believe freight rail operations in North America could be one of the next big areas where autonomous technology will be used. In the US today, remote control technology is used for certain freight operations and carried out by crew members within close proximity to locomotives, using remote-control systems to drive the train and for switching operations. It can also be used in freight train assembly and breakdown yards, where they can take locomotives down to a standing stop and up to operational speed. This has effectively been demonstrated to work out on the line of road, So as long as the communications infrastructure is secure, and the environment is protected from bad people trying to do bad things, we don’t think it’s a great leap to extrapolate from these types of solutions to fully automated train operations.
Overcoming capacity issues
One of the really exciting aspects about this opportunity is that everyone is looking at ways to innovate and to bring innovation to bear, whether it’s AI (artificial intelligence), automation, asset health or the IoT (Internet of Things). The Industrial IoT (IIoT) and Mission-Critical IoT (MC-IoT) networks in particular are at such early stages that customers are still evaluating their needs and the options available to them. We're hearing that current private wireless networks are capacity-constrained, and therefore many use cases can’t be implemented because there isn’t enough bandwidth available. We’re aiming to become one of the suppliers for this critical form of connectivity, particularly when there are safety and mission critical requirements. One of our first steps is to focus on helping customers utilise existing spectrum more efficiently – before people start looking at acquiring any additional spectrum. As operational and service-level mandates continue to evolve, and the number of use cases requiring wireless connectivity continue to increase, the number of conversations we are having are becoming more frequent, and more widespread. This is a clear indication that transport providers are trying to figure out their options for the kind of service and networks their operations need, the level of security they must have, and the roadmaps they will have to put into place to support these requirements. We are here to help the transportation markets navigate this process and to define the right solution to fit their needs.
Jim Taylor is President of Ondas Networks’ transportation business.