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Space-enabled 5G developed at Harwell Campus

By Sam Pither
29 June 2022

Engineers working at Oxford’s Harwell Campus for the European Space Agency (ESA) have used converged satellite and terrestrial networks to communicate with a robot designed to explore dangerous environments.

The technology could help workers in many industries – including nuclear power generation – to carry out tasks from afar when conditions are potentially hazardous.

Guy Burroughs, Robotics Decommissioning Lead at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Remote Applications in Challenging Environments facility, said: “Enabling a robot such as Spot to traverse and complete inspections in unknown environments, complete with path planning, collision avoidance and without communication delays, is vital for areas lacking existing infrastructure – common in the decommissioning of legacy plants.

“However, there are many times that we would need deploy robots remotely, or even control robots remotely, including the maintenance of future fusion energy plants as we work to make fusion a safe, low carbon and sustainable source of energy for generations to come.”

Spot, developed by Boston Dynamics in the US. Credit: ESA.

The canine-like robot can be fitted with several different sensors for inspection and is controlled remotely by a human operator. It can also navigate and complete some tasks autonomously.

The robot is already being used by organisations across the world for a number of applications, including remote monitoring at nuclear power facilities and tracking the progress of construction projects.  

The improved connectivity delivered by integrated satellite and terrestrial 5G networks could help operators maintain constant contact with the robot, even when it is in remote areas with little terrestrial coverage.

Antonio Franchi, Head of ESA’s 5G/6G Strategic Programme Line, said: “From our 5G/6G Hub, we are working with industry to explore and realise the huge potential of converged telecommunications networks.

“This promising demonstration shows how space-enabled 5G could promote safety and efficiency in the nuclear power industry, as well as other industries with potentially hazardous working environments.”

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Canine-like robot outside ECSAT. Credit: ESA.

The test, which was carried out in collaboration with the UK Atomic Energy Authority and the University of Oxford, consisted of three different scenarios.

In the first, a direct connection was established between the robot and the operator using the ESA 5G/6G Hub’s private terrestrial 5G network. Next, the connection was rerouted via a satellite, demonstrating the integration of communications networks on the ground and in space.

In the final test – which was completed outside the ECSAT building – the operator connected to ESA’s private satellite 5G network, which was then linked to the robot via a mobile device connected over a terrestrial commercial 4G network.

The tests showed that the combination of the private 5G network, satellite and commercial 4G network can provide continuous connectivity from the operator to the robot.

Harshbir Sangha, Director of Growth at the UK Space Agency, said: “The UK is a leading investor in ESA telecommunications research, backing innovative projects like this involving the University of Oxford and the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which will have real world benefits.

“We provided funding for the state-of-the-art 5G/6G Hub at ECSAT to enable UK researchers and engineers to better understand the benefits of satellite integration into 5G networks, create new opportunities for businesses, and catalyse investment into the UK’s thriving space sector.”

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