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OCEAN WEEK: A vision for a 5G Connected Solent

By on

As we continue to reflect on World Ocean Day this week and its theme for the year, The Ocean: Life and Livelihood, we continue to be struck by the pertinence of recognizing the importance of the deep blue. Not only in its relevance to the ever-growing ocean-based industry in the UK but also the responsibility for sustainability of our world’s oceans that humanity continues to have.

One of the developments the South Coast Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications are particularly excited about (and one that could be a tremendously supporting pillar to recognize the values of World Ocean Day) is the possibility of a 5G connected Solent – the provision of a 5G broadband cellular network. Working throughout the region the Solent Maritime Enterprise Zone (Solent MEZ) is an umbrella organisation leading the charge on this connectivity innovation.

There are many things on the horizon in this sector, for example technology initially established by aql for Cowes week, to provide spectators with a virtual reality experience of the event, now there are aspirations to utilise this infrastructure to expand service across the region helping to revolutionise the tried and tested operations in the field as well deliver new innovations related to offshore renewables, autonomous platforms, aquaculture, decarbonised shipping, smart ports, and safety and security. 5G will lay the foundation for greater bandwidth, reduced latency and a more reliable service than existing 4G infrastructure can support, transforming maritime connectivity. 

In support of this year’s Ocean Day, the South Coast Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications sat down with four unique and exciting organisations delivering and utilising this service in the region and the breath-taking potential this connectivity can deliver to businesses and individuals from the sea to the land beyond.

Professor Adam Beaumont, Founder and Chairman of trusted communications specialist, aql

The aql group of companies specialise in secure and reliable access to fixed and mobile networks for government, enterprise and innovators.  22 years young, aql hosts over 100 million telephone numbers for UK ISPs and operators. aql has also been providing global mobile connectivity for the Internet of Things arena since 2006, through the evolution of 2G/2.5G/3G/4G and now 5G.

For the past six years, aql has been connecting passenger ferries through a mix of fixed wireless access, long-range wifi satellites and 4G via a patchwork quilt of connectivity to service users. The dedication to bringing connectivity to remote or even completely inaccessible areas of the world is rooted around Adam’s personal passion, sailing.

Delivering the experience of sailing as a form of entertainment and education, plus, streaming real-time footage of the crew in action on the boats to shore has been an inspiration for Adam and his team to look at the wider potential of connectivity on the ocean. 

“We wanted to build something baked into the Solent – a number of permanent mast sites where we are also giving connectivity and free wifi terrestrially to places that aren’t traditionally well-plugged in.” 

This capability is matched by aql’s ambition to build out telemetry across the Solent – not only utilising the innovations this brings but also empowering those across the coast to deliver these insights and inspiring future livelihoods in the sector in a connected citizen environment.

“We wanted to provide technology to the region, circuit boards, embedded coding, etc to allow for people to have the building blocks to create their own smart technologies. That is our dream, to impassion and empower. So when meteorologists in Cowes for example are obtaining met conditions out at sea, they’re actually quoting data from a primary school’s weather station they have built themselves. The delivery of high frequency telemetry data such as this, in a crowd-sourced way, is really exciting.”

The excitement and empowerment aql are trying to generate to diverse residents across the South Coast via the access to technology is matched only by their excitement at the capabilities for the technology itself. The sensing capabilities lend itself to remarkable insights into the monitoring of the environment – whether it be the water quality of the Solent and its changes in the face of climate change or even air quality.

“The capability to cross reference the air quality within a remote region of the Solent to say, at the Eden Project, Cornwall in real time, is very cool.”

Collaborating with various education institutions across the country, aql is dedicated to tackling the most critical environmental challenges facing the deep blue sea today – for example microplastic. Due to the difficulties in detecting microplastics within the water and the errors in some measurement systems, which categorise them as naturally occurring, education institutions are dedicating an exceptional amount of time and money to tackling the issue. Similar to their empowerment of the individual, aql is doing the same for these institutions too.

Andy Crouch, BD Director and Co-Founder at JET Engineering System Solutions

Jet Engineering 5G Buoy

Co-founded alongside James Thomas, who in Andy’s words is “one of the country’s best engineers”, JET continues to work tirelessly to push 5G-enabled and AI capabilities into maritime industries – in particular the insights and better decisions these industries, such as offshore renewables, agriculture, safety, and autonomous shipping, can make with access to exceptionally accurate real time data from high-end sensor technologies delivered via JET’s 5G networks.

With the UK Hydrographic Office predicting the Blue Economy will be worth globally 3.2 trillion pounds by 2030, JET recognizes that this will only be achievable if resilient 5G networks exist in the maritime environment that service the large and diverse user base with the data transfer capabilities that will support Industry 4.0 and IoT step-change benefits.

“Take aqua-culture projects for example, we can enable the use of multiple sensor/monitoring capabilities there. We can upload HD video in real time via 5G and use AI and machine learning to track the biofouling of oysters and growth of kelp, contrast it with water condition data, and feed this back to those working in the field so they can develop more informed farming practices”.

Looking forward, JET will continue to deliver the innovations for autonomous drones, undersea robotics, and decarbonised smart shipping, as well as revolutionise solutions to traditional environmental issues like coastal erosion.

“5G mesh connectivity is going to be key to delivering these on a massive scale – allowing us to create 5G connected channels and operational areas, like offshore windfarms – it’s an immensely exciting time”.

JET envisions a future in which the entire South Coast is connected for these shared insights – from Falmouth to Plymouth, across the Solent and beyond to global waters. But Andy also recognises this vision is going to take a lot of persistence and endeavour to deliver.

“If you want to break technology, one of the best ways is to take it to sea. And here we are developing and deploying cutting-edge 5G tech, sticking it in our sustainable buoys, and dropping it in the waves for 12 months at a time”.

But Andy highlights JET’s unique philosophy in meeting these challenges head on.

“For James, myself, and our very awesome team, it’s about living with purpose. We are all genuinely driven to make a positive difference. We are suitably agile, capable, and ambitious to take advantage of this long-term opportunity to help our growing list of partners and their sectors make the technological step-changes necessary to ensure we can all prosper from and protect our marine environments.”

Alex Fraess-Ehrfeld, CEO of Airborne Robotics

Always fascinated by forward thinking technology (as well as outdoor activities), Alex is CEO of Airborne Robotics, a developer and manufacturer of drones and is another organisation innovating and enabling with 5G service technology.

Currently collaborating on a research project involving drone swarms for wind turbine inspection alongside University of Portsmouth, Ocean Infinity and Bentley Telecom, Airborne Robotics are using 5G to enable the conduction of autonomous wind turbine inspection by drone with subsequent data being transferred in satellite to a remote supercomputer at the University of Portsmouth for analysis.

“What’s really exciting is the vast economies of scale here. One boat with 15 people can do one turbine inspection a day – a mass operation can take a month. Our project aims to do an entire wind farm of 100-120 turbines in a single day.”

The potential for this end-to-end integrated system approach is mesmerizing but also is challenging too. Trying to make the process truly autonomous – not only in the handling of the drone itself but also the transfer of data from off the coast to shore. The importance of 5G to assist and connect these independent systems and applications is crucial.

“The various complex systems involved – battery consumption – the complexity of the sensors involved, the accuracy of the drones, accountable data, the lifecycle of the wind farms themselves – It adds extra dimensions and layers to the challenge”.

But the solutions are eye-watering too. The potential to reduce the cost factor to such a process is tremendous. A potential minimisation of £75 million annually as well as reducing the strain this has on customers and individuals is nothing but positive to livelihoods. Environmentally too, key considerations have been made. Electric battery life to the drones is juxtaposed with the congestion relief the drone activity brings too. With drones operating at a layer of air space not previously used, it offers a reduction in fossil fuel and tail-pipe emissions while also being a greener way of moving.

Simon Cheeseman, Sector Lead, Wave & Tidal Energy, Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult

Tidal device images, Orbital Marine Power

Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, is a not for profit UK organisation dedicated to driving innovation and cost reduction across offshore renewable energy – helping companies to innovate and commercialise new products and introduce them to the market . Simon’s speciality looks across both offshore wind, wave and tidal energy and the myriad of  associated marine technologies.

And there is a lot going on. Simon is currently leading  a €43 million UK-France collaboration project focusing on tidal energy potential in the Channel region. Wider Catapult interests see them working with wind turbine blade manufacturers on the Isle of Wight, floating offshore wind development off the coast of Cornwall and exploring satellite technologies for ocean observation alongside developing technology for understanding oceanography.

“I’m super interested in Ocean Day – on not only what is going on now but what we need to do in the future. How we do things in a low carbon, more environmentally friendly way, how the UK achieves its net zero 2050 targets and commitments”.

With so many projects and commitments, 5G is critical to achieving these ambitions. Recognising the dangers of being offshore in challenging and unpredictable environments, 5G is key to reducing the need to send lots of people offshore and enabling data transmission to shore  – for example carrying out the surveillance of offshore assets from a safe environment onshore is tremendously important. A fascinating example is via smart technologies:

“As an example, things like offshore wind farms, you have large bolts that need to be tightened to specific torques to join things together. What we can use smart bolts that transmit their torque settings”.

This consideration of safety is enabled by 5G – instead of having the technician in the field they can coordinate this maintenance from the control panel – using 5G to command autonomy via the transfer of data and command. But Simon also emphasises the need to take the pressure off wind capabilities and have a balance of the grid coming from elsewhere, namely wave and tidal – again, a potential maximised by 5G capability.

“My vision is that you have a superbly balanced renewable energy system that draws from the best renewable sources we have in the UK as well as being a huge exporter of it too. And that is a good thing. As we can convert these energies into hydrogen for road transport and ferries. Having this autonomous system provides high calibre jobs as well as a green future.”


Chloe McClellan
Media and Communications Assistant
Chloe McClellan is an experienced communicator and social media specialist.