Dance of Drones – a demonstration of autonomous logistics over mobile networks, enabled by MEC @ BT Innovation2017
Guest blog post by Andy Jones
Last week I spent a couple of days at BT Innovation Week – a yearly event in which the UK operator showcases its latest communication research and innovations. Throughout the week, crowds of BT executives & staff, BT’s carrier and enterprise customers (including all the UK mobile network operators), analysts and media gathered in the unusually hot British summer weather at BT’s Adastral Park to see what’s currently being gestated at the operator’s R&D unit.
Many of the visitors to the event’s Demo Zone gravitated towards a live demo showing a fleet of drones picking and loading parcels in a dispatch warehouse. BT’s demo team explained that because a location like a warehouse does not allow a GPS positioning signal to penetrate indoors, the drones must rely entirely on their own positioning sensors, constantly exchanging their 3D location with the centralized drone controller, which choreographs their movements with respect to each other and their surroundings to avoid collisions and to carry out tasks quickly and precisely. Achieving this level of precision and control places two new requirements onto the mobile network: low delay (AKA low latency) and deterministic delay (AKA low jitter). Unfortunately, these are two things that are not available today to cloud-based applications operating over mobile networks. Mobile-to-cloud network latency is too long and inconsistent. Essentially, the cloud is just too far away!
In the demo, BT partnered with Saguna, Ericsson and Unmanned Life to show the benefits of operating local cloud-computing ‘cloudlets’ using Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) for applications that require ultra-low latency like drone control (disclaimer: I am an advisor to Saguna, who provided the MEC Server for this demo). Unmanned Life provided the drones, equipped with SIMs, communicating over a standard 4G/LTE radio air interface to an Ericsson Pico Cell located inside the warehouse. Then, instead of traversing the long path through BT’s backhaul and core networks to reach the cloud, the drones’ communications were directed straight to the drone control application which was hosted locally. This direct “traffic offload function” is a basic MEC capability, leveraging the ‘cloudlet’ created by the Saguna Open-RAN MEC platform, which takes care of all MEC application lifecycle management and traffic steering, while also ensuring that charging, mobility management and other mobile core network functions are not compromised when applications are served from the network edge. With MEC, latency is reduced to just a few milliseconds and variation in latency is also minimized – thus allowing the drones’ movements to be perfectly synchronized and coordinated!
In summary, this year at Innovation2017 the demo area was buzzing – both literally and metaphorically! And the literal buzzing was due to a Dance of Drones!
Although BT Innovation Week is all about the future, the exciting thing about MEC is that it is available today as a transparent plug-in to any current 4G LTE network. Either by coincidence or synchronicity, 5G World was also taking place in UK last week. Visitors to the 5G event heard from Matt Beal, Vodafone’s Director of Architecture that when it comes to 5G, there are areas of technology “that we can quit waiting on” (read the story here). With operators talking this way, it’s becoming clearer that 5G adoption will be an incremental journey rather than a big-bang. MEC is a first and important step towards 5G low latency application enablement. Judging by the reaction at BT Innovation Week and the messages from Tier 1 operators at 5G World, I expect to see mobile operators making moves now to leverage MEC technology for new revenue-generating services, especially in fast-growing sectors like IoT.
About the author
Andy is an unashamed MEC evangelist who has nurtured the MEC initiative since its embryonic inception – long before it became known as MEC or accumulated a standardization body. Andy offers deep insights and multifaceted perspectives – he has been an operator intrapreneur and is now an advisor and an independent consultant working with partners in various layers of the MEC value chain and ecosystem. He is a mobile telecommunication veteran with over 25 years of experience. He served as Vodafone’s Head of Strategy and Architecture with a responsibility covering 20+ global Vodafone markets. Andy currently runs a successful independent consulting business, providing strategic insight to a large and growing list of clients who have a stake in telecom infrastructure and innovation. Andy serves on the advisory board of several startups, including Saguna – a pioneer in Mobile Edge Computing. To find out more visit http://www.jonesthefone.com.