Qualcomm heads for rural Dorset to test agri-bots (and maybe a nice jar of Scrumpy)

Cuz I got a 5G combine harvester, an' I'll give you the key

Mobile chipmaker Qualcomm has shacked up with UK government-backed rural connectivity initiative 5G RuralDorset to test mmWave-based smart agricultural kit.

Working in conjunction with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport's (DCMS) 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, 5G RuralDorset said it wants to examine the use of 5G mmWave across a variety of potential use cases including crop-monitoring, livestock tracking, and limiting water consumption using IoT and robotics.

The first test case is a planned 5G agri-robot tech platform, which RuralDorset hopes will be able to communicate with other units in real time, with data processing happening on-device rather than at a far-flung data centre. This would allow for speedier analytics and automation with relaitvely shorter latencies.

Test devices will use Qualcomm's Snapdragon platforms and modems. 5G RuralDorset has not said what hardware it intends to use on the RAN and core end, although the organisation has previously partnered with local full-fibre ISP Wessex Internet and Vodafone UK.

In a canned statement, Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, said it was trying to "seize the full potential of 5G to help the country build back better.

"Alongside the 5G RuralDorset project and backed by our £200 million trials scheme, we will explore innovative uses for 5G millimeter wave spectrum to revolutionise the agricultural sector."

Dave Happy, 5G RuralDorset's Security, Spectrum, and Collaboration, said the trials "aim to produce the world's first 5G-ready agri-robot."

Although 5G RuralDorset received over half (£4.8m) of its £8m funding from DCMS as part of the £260m committed to digital infrastructure development in last November's spending review, it is led by an independent consortium made up of Dorset Council and other industrial partners.

mmWave, huh? What is it good for?

The term mmWave refers to the swath of spectrum between 30GHz and 300GHz, although it is often used to describe bands above 24GHz. It offers several advantages over standard sub-6GHz when it comes to industrial and rural projects, most notably speed. Whereas sub-6GHz typically delivers bandwidth in the hundreds of megabits per second, mmWave connection speeds routinely measure in the gigabits.

Earlier this month, Turk Telecom claimed it recorded a world record for mmWave speeds, with one test showing peak throughput of 4.5Gbps. This effort was made using the 26GHz spectrum on AirScale hardware made by Nokia.

Its biggest weakness is range. mmWave requires vastly more cellular base stations to cover the same area as a standard sub-6GHz connection. This is why most planned UK rural 5G deployments have focused on using the slower but longer-range 700Mhz spectrum. One exception is Vodafone, which intends to use its existing 900MHz spectrum holdings.

To date, no commercial mmWave products have launched in the UK, in part due to the lack of spectrum availability. This may change in the coming years as Ofcom has confirmed plans [PDF] to start consultations on its spectrum roadmap in the third quarter of 2021. Additionally, it has said it wants to start trials of deployments at 26GHz, which it described as "the 5G mmWave Pioneer Band" [PDF].

For commercial uses, like those 5G RuralDorset wants to encourage, Ofcom has mooted making the 66-71GHz band available for unlicensed 5G usage. This would allow private deployments without the time-consuming and expensive process of obtaining spectrum licenses.

Qualcomm has said it hopes these trials will allow for further experimentation with mmWave technologies in the UK, leading up to larger widespread deployments.

In a statement, Wassim Chourbaji, senior veep of government affairs, said: "5G mmWave not only brings next-level mobile experiences to users, it can also deliver high-capacity wireless broadband access to urban, suburban, and rural settings. 5GRuralDorset will demonstrate how 5G mmWave can bring smart agriculture capabilities to remote farms.

"The widespread use of 5G mmWave technology in the UK would mark a significant step towards bridging the current digital divide. It is an endorsement of mmWave's potential that alongside trials like this one in Dorset, we are already seeing strong commercial momentum for mmWave with a number of rollouts already taking place across Europe." ®

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