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An interview with Dr. Wim Vandenberghe, 5G-Blueprint Project Coordinator

Wim VandenbergheWhere did the idea for 5G-Blueprint project come from?

It all started with the desire that the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (I&W) had. They wanted to stimulate developments that would positively impact society and rely on the novel 5G technology for doing so. This ambition was driven by the fact that many Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems use cases were already deployed to millions of Dutch citizens since 2016, relying on 4G connectivity and web services through the Talking Traffic program. Since 4G technology was already able to facilitate the creation of societal benefits in the mobility domain, they were interested to learn what more could be brought by 5G. That starting point was the driver for I&W to launch a market consultation on 5G at the end of 2018. Based on the corresponding lessons learned, I&W drafted its own 5G in Mobility Roadmap and initiated the search for interesting funding possibilities to realize it.

The first opportunity arose in the summer of 2019 with the Horizon 2020 ICT-53 call for projects in the field of Connected and Automated Mobility (CAM). I&W and its counterpart in Flanders, the department of Mobility and Public Works (MOW) investigated a possible project scope and a potential consortium. Very soon after that,  Interuniversitair Micro-Elektronica Centrum (imec) joined, and from there the consortium kept on growing as more and more valuable candidates have been identified and invited. As we wanted to have a realistic and relevant cross-border setting at the core of the project, we focused on the collaboration between Flanders and the Netherlands from the very inception of the project.

Initially, the project was not oriented towards teleoperation. In the first months, it had a far broader 5G in mobility scope, with a clear resemblance to the I&W 5G in mobility roadmap. However, that broad scope did not really seem to hit the sweet spot when it came towards opening up valuable opportunities for all involved consortium members. One day, the specific application of teleoperation became part of the discussions with one specific concept having very promising business potential. It was clear however that even though the concept seemed simple, there were several challenges that needed to be tackled before the concept could be adopted on a day-to-day basis in the domain of transport and logistics. Not only challenges for the network but also for the different levels of functionality (what was later called use cases and enabling functions) particularly in the cross-border scenario for the business and the governance sides. Let me emphasize here that teleoperation is one of the most demanding and hence interesting applications from a network engineering perspective, and it is only with the launch of 5G that the concept is considered feasible.

Very soon after that discussion, all involved parties became very enthusiastic about researching the teleoperation over 5G concept, and the project proposal scope was reoriented towards an exhaustive research activity on all elements related to deploying teleoperation in the domain of transport and logistics using 5G connectivity.


What are the objectives of the 5G-Blueprint project?

The objectives of the project can be broken down into three different categories: technical, business, and regulatory. On the technical part, three domains have to prove that they are able to take up their role in the overall system, namely the 5G network, the teleoperation technology, and the enabling functions. The enabling functions on one hand enhance the situational awareness of the remote operator (and hence safety), but on the other hand, can also emphasize the business case by leveraging the fact that a remote operator is no longer physically coupled to the controlled vehicle. Of course, bringing these three different technical domains together in one working overall system is a technical challenge on its own. From the business objectives point of view, the first objective is to understand the actual demands of the transport and logistics sector; Are the challenges such as a shortage of labor or economic loss due to waiting times as high as expected? And if so, it is an objective to identify what the corresponding value network is, and how the business model has to be organized to ensure that everyone in that value network has a positive business case? Next to that, there is an objective to see how teleoperation could facilitate the transition from L1 to L5 autonomous driving in the long run. And the last business objective is to stimulate the market adoption of the researched teleoperation solutions. Within the regulatory category, the focus is mainly on the identification of any legal or regulatory aspects that could hinder the large-scale deployment of the developed solutions, both from a connectivity and automation perspective.


What are the challenges of the teleoperation systems based on 5G connectivity in cross-border scenarios and how does 5G-Blueprint expect to face these complexities?

In 5G-Blueprint, the baseline solution is that of so-called direct control teleoperation. In this case, the remote vehicle/vessel operator performs the operations like steering, accelerating, and braking manually. In such a case, it is very important that the remote operator remains in control of the vehicle/vessel at all times. This means that connectivity disruptions can only occur for extremely short periods of time (with an order of magnitude of a few hundreds of milliseconds), periods in which the vehicle will use its own safety fallback systems to continue on its path safely (by combining adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping functions) and migrate to a vehicle-controlled safe stop procedure if the connectivity is not restored. This is already a challenge to realize in the domain of a single mobile network operator, but it becomes utterly more challenging in cross-border settings. Validating if this can be solved using 5G technology is an essential element of the 5G-Blueprint project. This will include technological elements, as well as elements related to harmonized regulatory and legal frameworks.


What impacts can be expected from 5G-Blueprint?

As a result of the 5G-Blueprint activities, there will be a clear hands-on understanding of the technical feasibility of an international teleoperated transport solution based on 5G connectivity. It will also become clear what are the best business and governance models for deploying this concept on a large scale across Europe. The insights will be broadly disseminated, reaching beyond the borders of the involved project consortium. If this project will be able to make it clear that the paradigm of taking the human driver out of the vehicle while not yet replacing them with a machine is feasible from a technical, business, and governance perspectives, then it will have delivered the blueprint enabling the adoption of an approach towards connected and automated mobility that has an evolutionary instead of a revolutionary nature. The results of this project will pave the way to a more realistic and hence feasible transition towards automated mobility by leveraging on the connected part first, and only in the second phase, gradually increasing the automation capabilities of the vehicle itself. This way, the benefits of connected and automated mobility can become a reality in the European Union in the short to medium term, despite the current trend to shift timelines for the market release of L4/L5 autonomous vehicles on public roads more and more into the future.


5G-Blueprint comprises a large consortium – what areas of expertise do various partners bring to the project?

Since the project targets to research the concept of teleoperation using 5G in an exhaustive manner, several different competencies are needed. This is reflected in the size and composition of our project consortium. Two main types of actors that are needed are the network operators (KPN, Telenet, and Eurofiber), and the experts in teleoperation technology (Roboauto, Seafar, V-Tron, and MWLC). Next to them, there is a need for a vehicle OEM (Toyota) and parties from the connected mobility sector (Be-Mobile, Sweco, Swarco, and Locatienet) to realize all the envisaged enabling functions regarding situational awareness. Since the project targets the domain of transport and logistics, it is also essential to have partners from that sector on board, to ensure we have all desired domain knowledge on board. This can be split up into transport organizations (Kloosterboer, Verbrugge, and Transport Roosens), ports (Port of Antwerp and North Sea Port), and providers of software solutions targeting this sector to realize the enabling functions regarding business case improvement (Sentors, Rom40, and NxtPort). Next to that, in a research project like this, appropriate academic expertise is needed, which is brought to the project by imec, HAN University, and HZ University. To have proper representation on the public side, it is also important to have the corresponding representatives of the public sector (Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and Flemish Department of Mobility and Public Works). And finally, to further strengthen the cohesion of this consortium, specific business accelerators were also attracted (Martel Innovate, Impuls Zeeland).


Stakeholder involvement is crucial for the success of any project. What is your approach?

As just discussed, the first step was to make sure that our project consortium contained a broad area of expertise and hence heterogeneous mix of involved stakeholders. Next to that, we are currently working on the establishment of our advisory board, aiming to also have a suitable and complementary stakeholder type representation and to optimize their engagement with the project as much as possible. We intend to make that advisory board a valuable second ring around our consortium of beneficiaries. Next to that, we will also heavily invest in our dissemination and communication activities to get stakeholders involved. This will be achieved through publishing scientific publications and participation and organization of events such as workshops and demonstrations.


What will be the benefit for the logistics/port operations brought forward by 5G Blueprint solutions?

The benefits are being investigated by our work package on governance and business models. But I think it is already safe to say that a reduction in labor costs is to be expected because teleoperation allows you to take away idle times, e.g., during loading and unloading of the vehicle/vessel, when waiting for administrative tasks to be completed before a journey can be continued, or when stopping because the driver/sailor has reached their daily allowed number of working hours. Reducing idle time does not only lower the labor cost but also increases the productivity of the vehicle itself. Next to that, it is expected that the profession of the remote operator has the potential to attract new profiles to the labor market that is currently challenged by structural shortages that temper the growth of the sector. The remote operator function takes away unattractive social elements of the truck driver or barge sailor profession, such as being away from home for long periods of time or spending the night in a potentially unsafe environment. But as said, these are just the first expectations, the final benefits are still under assessment.


How does the COVID-19 crisis affect the project work and how do you circumvent this challenge?

It is quite extraordinary to see that our project has been running for nearly 6 months, with great interaction within and between the work packages, and also between consortium members bilaterally, while many of the participants have never met in person. Of course, we ensured we had optimal online collaboration tools in place but the smooth manner in which the project has gone through its first six months is entirely due to the high level of motivation of everyone involved in the project.

Luckily, this first phase of the project lends itself more towards online collaboration than for instance the piloting activities planned for the last year of the project. As a result, at this moment the COVID-19 pandemic has not negatively affected the budget nor the delivery timeline of the project. However, I’m pretty sure that I speak for all the parties involved that we are very much looking forward to the next stage when we will finally be able to get together for both professional and social aspects.

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