Autonomous vehicles and trains are no longer figments of one’s imagination. Innovators such as Tesla have proven that we have the technology available today to build semi-automated vehicles. However, to make truly driverless cars, trucks, and trains a functioning reality on the roads and rails, it’s necessary to deploy communications networks and technologies that assure the requirements for mission critical operations can and will be met all the time, not just most of the time.
As we fast forward towards this new reality, it is important to understand that the U.S. Department of Transportation has started to build a loose framework of principals within its report, “Automated Vehicles 3.0: Preparing the Future of Transportation”. Further, the American Association of Railroads (AAR) and its members have established committees to create standards for automated train operations. Their efforts have prioritized operational safety leveraging a myriad of enabling technologies, software and infrastructure.
Another critical component of the analysis and evaluation is determining the communications infrastructure requirements that will enable these automated vehicles to operate safely, as well as how to responsibly introduce them to the roads and rails for coexistence with manually operated vehicles. This analysis brings to focus the need for control over these networks by the operators. It also suggests the need for more private communications networks, optimized use of existing licensed radio frequency (RF) spectrum, and the possible need for allocation of more spectrum for licensed use and mission critical requirements.
While the conclusions from this analysis and evaluation aren’t complete, it is clear that companies with mission critical operations and applications, such as the transportation and rail industries, will need to have control over the design, operation and evolution of the communications networks. They are going to require data communications with the highest levels of security, reliability, and quality of service to support the rapidly evolving requirements of their operations. However, despite these requirements, the solution can’t be “at any cost”. The total cost of ownership for these networks must be realistic and not cost prohibitive. This strongly suggests the need for a standards-based communications technology that can be used across multiple industries with economies of scale in manufacturing and a vibrant ecosystem of developers and manufacturers.
Private Vs. Public Networks for Transportation
The transportation and rail industries use of private, licensed spectrum for mission critical control and signaling long predates the availability of the commercial wireless networks. Even with the advent of the first cellular networks in the mid-1980s, industrial companies have maintained their critical wireless networks given that commercial wireless networks are designed for the consumer market and applications, and they lack the reliability, quality of service, security, and availability required by the rail and transportation industry. Commercial wireless providers are unable to effectively prioritize traffic for mission critical applications or specific operations. For example, on a commercial network, there is no way to prioritize a data signal being sent to prevent a train collision over an Instagram post or a video download from Netflix customer. These mission critical applications, control signals and critical data impacting safety and operation’s situational awareness need to be sent, received, and acknowledged with the highest level of reliability and without delay.
The Need for Standardized Protocols
While transportation and rail have had their own private networks using private licensed spectrum for decades, the networks and the spectrum allocated to them use very narrow portions of radio frequency with limited data rates. This was adequate for voice and low throughput data communications that rail and transportation (and other industries) relied on in the past. However, as we move into an era of increased automation, with higher throughput and greater volume of devices and applications which include controls, increased security, and mission critical applications like positive train control (PTC), the transportation and rail operators need to be able to utilize existing private, licensed spectrum they have been allocated, but also need additional bandwidth and more capacity. More and more broadband spectrum is being acquired by the commercial wireless service providers who purchase spectrum at auction for billions of dollars, and whose primary purpose is to provide services to millions and millions of consumers. They have a completely different business model than what is needed by mission critical industries.
One of the challenges that transportation and rail operators face, as do other mission critical industries, is that until recently there has not been a viable data communications standard and related technology to increase data capacity in narrower channel spectrum. Most of the standards work on data communications has taken place for broadband spectrum. To that end, Long Term Evolution (LTE) requires a minimum of 1.4 MHz channels and IEEE 802.16 requires a minimum of 1.25 MHz channels. This means mission critical entities were forced into proprietary solutions. While proprietary solutions are purpose built to meet specific needs (e.g., privately operated, licensed spectrum, secure, reliable and low latency), they present risks as well, namely the risk of a company or product line being discontinued, or all costs of new development and product evolution being passed on to those relatively few customers who use a specific version of the product or service. Even if the company purchasing the products has done their due diligence and taken measures to protect their interests (i.e., put the intellectual property into escrow in the event of a product or company discontinuation), there is no guarantee that another manufacturer would agree to make the equipment or provide the service, especially if the same economic risks persist.
For this reason, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the Utilities Technology Council (UTC), leading electric utility companies and telecom manufacturers came together to modify the IEEE 802.16 standard to operate in narrower channel sizes than 1.25 MHz, thereby opening up many new licensed frequency options with greater throughput. The new standard, 802.16s, which published in October of 2017, is frequency agnostic and allows for operation in channel sizes ranging from 100 kHz up to 1.25 MHz with reduced network overhead for maximum throughput in narrower channels.
This new protocol is being used throughout multiple mission critical industries, including electric utilities, water & wastewater treatment, oil & gas, government/military and most recently is being tested for use in rail. It is the first standards-based data communications technology designed specifically for mission critical industries. Leveraging a standard creates an eco-system of manufacturers and industrial companies within North America and globally.
This also means a standard technology for private networks can be implemented and as more and more mission critical companies implement this solution, it will continue to drive down the total cost of ownership for these private networks. This should begin to open the door for a number of new technology innovations and applications that require higher bandwidths and data throughput to be realized sooner, and at lower costs.
The Path Ahead
It’s not enough that a technology exists and can be programmed or employed to perform tasks or automate operations. Where safety is the highest priority, and security is directly linked to safety, the potential for technology and automation can only be realized if safety and security can be assured.
Leveraging standards-based technology over private, licensed spectrum to bring a wide array of technical innovations is a way to increase safety and security assurance. Deploying networks using standard technology is not only a responsible way to keep costs down, but also to ensure interoperability and the ability to build eco-systems that will ensure new innovation and advancements in the future.
We are excited about the path ahead for the transportation and rail industries and believe this combination of approaches to deploying next generation networks will allow these industries to accelerate the benefits from automation and innovation – and do it in a safe and secure manner.