July 23, 2022 | By Abel Mayal

In our global world, the transport and logistics sector has a crucial role to play in keeping goods and people moving. But when it comes to taking advantage of the latest telecoms technologies, the industry is just getting started. Take 5G: it is able to transfer vastly greater volumes of data at much lower latency, opening up new use cases for intelligent, interconnected, and digitally-enabled devices. Unsurprisingly, major port facilities are keen to take advantage of this, and are forming partnerships with international telecoms companies to deploy private networks. Airspan has been a leader in this space, having helped to deploy a 5G private network project at Bristol Port as part of the West of England Combined Authority’s 5G Logistics project.

Working with a consortium of partners including ADVA, AttoCore, Cellnex, and Unmanned Life, as well as research groups from the University of Bristol and Cardiff University, Airspan turned the port area into a testing ground for a range of advanced use cases. These included security, using drones equipped with video surveillance technology to monitor the perimeter boundary of the site. The feed is analysed in real time to identify breaches and threats. Airspan also explored inventory tracking, using RFID tags and sensors. We even looked at managing traffic. Ports are busy places, with lots of lorries transporting cargo. By installing 5G routers in vehicle cabs, we were able to create a central traffic management system where lorries communicate autonomously, signalling their approach to junctions. The management system will give priority where needed, reducing congestion.

To create this network, Airspan provided 11 x Airspeed 1900 all-in-one gNB, which consists of a compact, easily deployable, and scalable unit that brings together antenna, RU (Radio Unit), DU (Distributor Unit), and CU (Central Unit) to produce excellent network performance. It’s robust enough to be positioned in an industrial setting with a correspondingly high volume of goods traffic, personnel footfall, and particulate matter from the heavy machinery, which taken together could otherwise impair and degrade the operational performance and reliability over time. These units are also small, so can be positioned in hard-to-reach locations, which helped Airspan to spread coverage uniformly over the facility and avoid any pockets of poor reception.

In terms of frequency, the 5G network used the N77 trials band at the higher end of the 3.8-4.2 GHz, a relative first in the UK for a major commercial project. Most MNOs operate in the N78 band, at the lower end of this range, as such there is a much broader base of existing handset and UE support available. The absence of this in the N77 band meant that Airspan had to develop these essential tools itself before the project could start. The fact that the engineering and project team completed the work and still delivered other project milestones to schedule is testament to the expertise and research that we’ve invested in our UK team.

Once this challenge was overcome, the new network could be deployed and optimised for large data flows at low latency between digitally-enabled assets at the port, creating a more efficient and more capable commercial operation. As well as improving logistical efficiency across the port facility – getting cargo to where it is needed more quickly – the technology also has the potential to improve air quality on site: by reducing the stop time at junctions, it dramatically reduces local-level particulate emissions from HGVs.

Besides these new applications and innovations on the ground, one of the most important achievements was produced in the lab. In advance of the deployment, Airspan’s 5G test lab in Slough played host to a first for the UK market: a complete end-to-end deployment of equipment, software, and hardware from multiple providers on an Open RAN model. And this is without even mentioning the complicated range of other proprietary technologies, including those for the associated use cases such as drones and traffic management, that were then overlaid and integrated with this Open RAN network. The fact that Airspan and its collaborators successfully overcame the challenges posed by this degree of integration and complexity is testament to the potential of the Open RAN model to deliver solutions that can be deployed and scaled more easily and more cost effectively than traditional RAN. For Airspan, it was also an exciting opportunity to further develop the growing and vibrant ecosystem of Open RAN providers which exist today in the UK.

‘Smart’ concepts are moving from abstract notion to commercial reality in more sectors of the economy than ever before, and the benefits to manufacturing, industry, and logistics are becoming especially apparent. The phenomenon of intelligent, interconnected, and digitally-enabled devices that began with smart phones and smart cars is now entering an exciting new phase as Smart Factories, Smart Cities, and now Smart Ports, take shape. Through initiatives like these, Airspan’s 5G technology is opening up an unparalleled range of new possibilities for UK business. The WECA 5G Logistics project is securing a bright future for the Port of Bristol, helping it to become more efficient and more capable, and to transform itself into a proving ground for the next generation of logistics innovations.