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The Spark 5G Lab at GridAKL in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter – an interactive environment dedicated to the advancement of new technology ideas, concepts and solutions

What’s your driverless car? – By Lynne Richardson

The buzz around telecommunications right now is all about 5G, the fifth generation of wireless technology which is set to enable transformative technology like automated vehicles and near-instantaneous virtual reality. And as the ad says, if you’re not thinking about how 5G could benefit your business, you probably should be – the question is, what’s your driverless car?

Cellular network technology evolves in ‘generations’ which represent a major change in the fundamental nature of the service. New generations have appeared roughly every 10 years: analogue (1G) was introduced in 1981, followed by digital (2G) in 1992; 3G was introduced in 2001 with 4G – the current standard for wireless communications – appearing in 2009. 

5G is the next generation and it’s a quantum leap up from 4G. It is superfast – up to 100 times faster than 4G. The huge difference this will make to ‘latency’ is the reason why 5G will be so revolutionary. Latency is the delay that occurs before a transfer of data begins following the instruction for its transfer. For 5G, latency is expected to drop from around 50 milliseconds at 4G to 1 millisecond – that’s virtually real time.

Spark’s 5G Lab

You have to see 5G in action to be able to appreciate the difference, and to do this you have to make the trip to the Auckland waterfront. Located at Generator at GridAKL within Auckland’s innovation precinct in Wynyard Quarter, the Spark 5G Lab is an interactive environment dedicated to the advancement of new technology ideas, concepts and solutions.

Opened in November last year, it has a dual purpose. It’s primarily designed to be a collaboration space for New Zealand innovators, entrepreneurs and companies, providing them with 5G wireless technology in a controlled environment so that they can test and develop products and experiences. 

Its second purpose is to showcase the possibilities and benefits of 5G, including robotics, virtual reality, facial recognition, Internet of Things (IoT), smart cities, emergency service drones and driverless cars. A tour of the facility includes some eye-opening immersive experiences – such as being on the stage with Def Leppard during a concert without having to fork out hundreds of dollars for a VIP package.

One such company working with Spark to trial 5G is Paymark – their ‘driverless car’ is to revolutionise the way Kiwis pay for goods and services in stores throughout New Zealand. Thirty years since the company helped pioneer EFTPOS in New Zealand, Paymark’s head of digital payment, Darren Hopper, says that in the future, you could be paying for goods and services using your face.

‘Facial recognition payment’ is the term Paymark uses to describe the ground-breaking technology. By scanning hundreds of micro-points, the system identifies your face, then matches it to a bank account. When you walk into a store, the vendor knows who you are, how you’ll pay, and even what you’ve ordered in the past.

Facial recognition, or biometrics, is nothing new – ‘smartgates’ at our borders allow epassport holders to pass through Customs simply by staring into a screen. However, the hardware behind this technology is complicated and expensive, well beyond the reach of most small vendors. 5G will be instrumental in taking the idea to the next stage. 

“By plugging 5G into our system, it could do away with a lot of the hardware and make it easy to install and run for a merchant,” says Mr Hopper. “We’re hoping to shrink the connection down to a small wireless device like a dongle that communicates with the cloud via 5G. From your face to the cloud, the payment process would become instantaneous.”

Partnership with Team New Zealand

The opening of the Spark 5G Lab was marked by starting an official countdown to Spark’s proposed 5G network launch date. Spark aims to have New Zealand’s first 5G network live on the Waitemata Harbour in Auckland by 1 July 2020 for Emirates Team New Zealand to use as part of its preparation to defend the America’s Cup.

Emirates Team New Zealand says digital technology will be key to winning the America’s Cup. “The relationship between Emirates Team New Zealand and Spark will give us an opportunity to have unrestricted access to a 5G network that will help us defend the America’s Cup in 2021,” says Emirates Team New Zealand CEO Grant Dalton. “We do not necessarily know the full extent of these opportunities yet, but we know they are going to make a huge difference to the race.”

The concept AC75 sailboat for the 2021 America’s Cup – Emirates Team New Zealand designers back at base will be able to receive data and analytics in real time during the on-water testing stages through access to the 5G network

Dan Bernasconi, head of design at Emirates Team New Zealand, says that in order to win the cup in 2021 they need to win the innovation race first. “The America’s Cup is as much a technology race as it is a yacht race. We know the scope for 5G technology to help make the boat go faster is significant.”

Emirates Team New Zealand’s ‘driverless car’ will be the ability for their designers back at base to get data and analytics in real time during the on-water testing stages through access to the 5G network. “This will make a huge difference,” says Mr Bernasconi. “In Bermuda our designers had to spend hundreds of hours out on the water on chase boats close to the yacht in order to get data to then upload and analyse once they were back onshore. From there, they would look at what needed to be done for the next test day. With 5G, our design thinking can evolve faster, allowing us to explore more design options and buy us more of one of the most precious commodities in the America’s Cup – time. This could be a game-changer for us.”

It’s not just the boat designers who will benefit. 5G will enable you and I to experience being on the boat through virtual reality. Visit the team’s onshore base during the America’s Cup racing and you’ll be able to don a VR headset equipped with headphones, and immediately you’ll be on the boat, watching the challengers as they fall behind in your wake, hearing the crew calling instructions. The only thing missing will be the feel of the wind in your hair.

5G in Australia

Our cousins across the ditch are well ahead of introducing 5G, with Telstra making 5G technology available in August last year across selected areas of the Gold Coast. Telstra’s equivalent of the Spark 5G Lab – the Telstra 5G Innovation Centre – was launched in February 2018 and has already witnessed several world and Australian firsts, including the world’s first precinct of 5G-enabled wifi hotspots and Australia’s first 5G-connected car.

The Westpac Little Ripper Lifesaver – when equipped with SharkSpotter artificial intelligence, the drones can identify and alert lifesavers to sharks near swimmers

One exciting development in Australia that could benefit from the superfast speed of 5G is the Westpac Little Ripper Lifesaver, a suite of sophisticated single and multi-rotor unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are used for search, rescue and lifesaving operations. The drones, developed by the Ripper Group, are assisting traditional surf lifesavers by patrolling the beaches from the air. They use artificial intelligence to distinguish sharks from dolphins and surfers in real time, streaming video back to surf patrols on the beaches. Alternatively, using an onboard megaphone, the drones can alert swimmers to the dangers lurking in the waters below. The drones commenced regular patrols along beaches in New South Wales and Queensland on Australia’s east coast in September 2017.

Here in New Zealand, Kiwi-owned and operated VigilAir is working with the team at the Spark 5G Lab to see how 5G could benefit their aerial surveillance drone services. VigilAir is a SaaS product (software as a service) that integrates drones into existing electronic security systems. When not flying, the drone sits in an enclosure (dubbed a nest) on a business’s premises and when alerted by an alarm sensor ‘trigger’ is dispatched to fly over the site to investigate, recording and live-streaming high-definition video footage to whoever’s monitoring the action.

Ohmio hits the road

The first New Zealand business to road-test the technical capabilities of 5G has been Ohmio Automotion. Their 5G-connected driverless car prototype was given a test run in mid-March in a controlled area within Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter innovation precinct. 

Dr Mahmood Hikmet, Ohmio’s head of research and development, believes the test run with Spark was only the second of its type in the world. “It has demonstrated some of the exciting opportunities 5G will enable for our autonomous car technology. The significant drop in latency – or the reaction time when one device talks to another – will give cars human-like reflexes and will open up multiple possibilities for connected infrastructure and a smart city ecosystem.”

Ohmio Automotion’s 5G-connected driverless car was given a test run in mid-March in a controlled area within Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter innovation precinct

Ohmio’s plans to launch more driverless cars in closed facilities across New Zealand where access is restricted – around airport terminals, university campuses, retirement villages and hospitals – was realised in June when Christchurch International Airport launched its Smart Shuttle. The vehicle – an Ohmio LIFT – marks the second stage of the airport company’s ongoing trial of autonomous vehicles on private roads at the airport which started in 2017.

Christchurch International Airport chief executive Malcolm Johns says the Kiwi Smart Shuttle can carry up to 15 adults, so may offer more possible uses across the airport campus in the future. 

Built on Ohmio’s innovative flying carpet chassis design and incorporating Ohmio and HMI Technologies’ own locally developed guidance system, the Ohmio LIFT is also unique in that its body has been 3D printed, making it truly ground-breaking in terms of its design and construction. Watch a video of the Ohmio LIFT here.

The future in NZ for autonomous vehicles

Whilst Ohmio’s driverless vehicles are currently only operating in carefully controlled areas, the company will eventually seek on-road certification which will open up opportunities where vehicles will run on public streets alongside regular modes of transport. 

The option for covering first and last-mile logistics is a real possibility – for example, carrying people short distances to/from transport hubs, such as train stations or bus stops, to their end destination. This would reduce the need for park-and-ride facilities.

Colin Brown, Spark’s lead for network evolution, says the key to operating autonomous vehicles is the ultra-low latency. “This is needed to provide exceptionally high throughput of data. Fast peer-to-peer communication means that both vehicles and infrastructure can share sensor-generated data with each other on the road in real time. Imagine vehicles constantly talking to each other and the city around them!

“Prior to 5G, control systems on autonomous vehicles were restricted to using wires to send information. With 5G’s high throughput and low latency, we can go completely wireless while retaining the same speed of transmission. This could open up many exciting possibilities around the design and architecture of autonomous vehicle control systems.”

One-hour tours of the Spark 5G Lab can be booked online atwww.spark.co.nz/5g/home/visitlab/

Lynne Richardson is the editor of New Zealand Construction News and FTD - Supply Chain Management Magazine

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