The town of Milton Keynes is building on its strong progress in smart solutions by encouraging businesses to apply to its new 5G Accelerator programme. But what plans does the council have in key sectors such as mobility and health? And how can SMEs help reach those goals? Cityscape sits down with Brian Matthews, head of transport innovation at Milton Keynes Council, to find out more
The launch of the new MK:5G Accelerator in early August from Milton Keynes Council is building on what has already been strong progress from the town in its rolling out of smart technologies for residents – particularly in the response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Led by the council, funded by the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) and in collaboration with Connected Places Catapult – which also has an office based in the town – the accelerator is seeking innovative organisations to utilise the authority’s 5G private network and provide solutions in Mobility, Health & Wellbeing, and Energy industries.
Milton Keynes’s private 5G network, explains Brian Matthews, head of transport innovation at the council, is around two to three months from completion, with work ongoing arranging construction of masts, data centres, and fibre links around the Buckinghamshire town.
Planners hope the accelerator can capitalise on organisations in the area unlocking the potential of 5G to improve and introduce new services for locals.
We recognise as a group of individuals that we come from a variety of backgrounds and technical expertise, and we didn’t want to stifle creativity
“We think we’ve got the resources to support 10-15 initiatives or companies, and so we’re developing a selection criteria before we judge on how the proposition they put to us best fits to our understanding of what the challenges are,” Brian told Cityscape. “We were deliberately not too prescriptive in there, because we recognise as a group of individuals that we come from a variety of backgrounds and technical expertise, and we didn’t want to stifle creativity by saying ‘you must look at integrated ticketing’, for example.”
The transport innovation head noted that the council wants to be “as wide as we can” in encouraging solutions to the three target areas, noting that the scheme could be expanded if more funding comes their way at the end of March.
Building on 5G progress in mobility
Cityscape’s ‘City in the Spotlight’ feature earlier this year highlighted 5G’s capabilities in providing smart parking sensors around the town – allowing drivers to be notified in real-time of open parking spaces in the urban centre. Now, with the accelerator programme, Brian notes that mobility can be taken even further by new solutions and technologies coming forward.
In establishing its own private 5G network, the council no longer has to pay commercial network access charges, taking advantage of the increasing amount of cars coming off production lines with sim cards installed. “It’s given us far more capability and capacity to start looking at far more advanced systems than we were talking about last year – and what it means for Milton Keynes is it means we can create a new form of urban traffic management system, using AI, all of the connectivity, all of the sensors, and from a variety.”
Traditionally, Brian explained, transport officials can count cars and predict future trends; yet with machine learning enabled by low latency 5G systems, “you can start getting very advanced weather data – when cars turn their windscreen wipers on, we’ll know exactly when it’s raining, and that will trigger taxi usage going up by X%. Therefore, let’s start moving a fleet of taxis in that area,” Brian said.
The council is also inviting solutions in Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAV), of which low latency and high-quality Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) feeds brought about by stronger 5G connections can better manage traffic around the town centre. “You can feed that information through an Air Traffic Control Centre-style system, and have one or two people observing and learning from AI machine learning of how these vehicles operate,” Brian answered.
The advancement in technologies will allow transport managers to take the “safety drive away from the vehicle” for a fully autonomous – but locally controlled – service in the city. “We may be able to take the safety drive away from the vehicle and really operate it as a proper autonomous service in the city,” he said.
Responding to COVID-19
The effects of the Coronavirus pandemic have highlighted both strengths and shortcomings in the town’s smart systems, Brian notes – one of the driving forces behind highlighting Health & Wellbeing as part of the accelerator programme. Dovetailing with the city’s mobility drive of being able to manage traffic flows in a bird’s-eye view network, the same can be done to facilitate social distancing and prioritise moving key workers to where they need to get to.
“We’re testing this because we wanted to understand how people walk around the city; because that has an influence on how we can run autonomous vehicles, cycles, or scooters, on the same pavements, and then if we can learn that behaviour then we can learn to move people further apart.
“We can learn how crowds walk through a city, we can put out information on social distancing, and put in measures that we need to meet to people through an area.” It is all embryonic and in early stages, Brian says, but solutions brought about by the accelerator may include how they can manage bus journeys to prioritise “those who really need a bus, and those who don’t.”
Elsewhere in health provision, the council has teamed up with local hospital trusts and Cranfield University to assess how drones can deliver medicine and essential supplies around the borough. Whilst this could still be managed on a 3G or 4G network, “if it drops out, you’re in trouble,” Brian told Cityscape. A more stable 5G connection will not only improve that security, but also enhance 5G mast-to-mast connectivity, reducing potential losses of connection with the drone once out of sight.
In the future, the authority believes strong and secure 5G connections will allow connected ambulances to potentially present a clinician on-screen at the scene of an incident, potentially reducing the nine out of 10 unnecessary A&E visits that plagues the UK’s health sector. Additionally, in managing cancers, for example, the authority is running a bowel cancer testing programme allowing patients to swallow a 5G-enabled sensor, which can produce images of the patient’s bowel movements – delivering a diagnosis within 24 hours, a huge improvement on previous testing methods which could take over a month to return results.
The accelerator as a learning tool – and building a supply chain
With funding until the end of March 2021, Brian sees success as bringing innovative locally-based companies through to fully utilising its private 5G network – potentially, in the long-term, encouraging larger corporate firms to access the network and provide services through a form of subscription model.
MK:U, the in-construction learning facility with a focus on technology-based courses, could be primed to take on the accelerator and used as a learning tool, Brian outlined: “The second aspect of it is that we’re looking to build a new university in MK which is in the works at the moment.
“What we want to do is give this capability over to the university to use their creative minds to keep it going, to keep it current and updated, and to use it as a teaching tool, and using it through an educational facility, but very much through a business focus.”