Aerial view of Plymouth Sound and Hoe by Jay Stone

Vodafone, Plymouth City Council and Plymouth Marine Laboratory announce use cases for world’s first 5G marine-focused testbed

News  |  24 March 2022

  • The Smart Sound Connect Marine 5G Mobile Private Network, deployed by Vodafone and operated by Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), is to be the world’s first 5G marine-focussed testbed, cementing Plymouth’s position at the forefront of marine and maritime innovation

  • The testbed will be free to use for local and international businesses to create and develop marine 5G use cases

  • The first 5G trialists for Smart Sound Connect include Lloyds Register, the National Physical Laboratory, Serco, and The Bounty Project

  • The 5G network will be augmented by a highspeed data mesh network from Steatite

Vodafone, Nokia, Plymouth City Council and Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) have confirmed the first companies to run trials at the Plymouth Smart Sound – the first marine-focused 5G testbed powered by a state-of-the-art 5G Mobile Private Network (MPN).

Smart Sound Connect incorporates a private 4G/5G marine network to provide full coverage across the coastal proving grounds, in partnership with Vodafone and Nokia, and offshore high-speed communications through Steatite’s Wave Relay mesh network. These networks will be seamlessly integrated to provide an advanced communication capability from the quayside to more than 20 miles offshore and deliver world leading advanced communications infrastructure across the entire Smart Sound.

Access to these private networks is delivered through high performance remote operations centres based in Oceansgate and PML. The service is fully managed by PML.

Smart Sound Connect has been funded by the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership. The network is the first of its kind and will be free for businesses, academics and Government organisations to use in their testing and research on and under the waters of Plymouth Sound.

Illustrative map showing Plymouth Sound and surrounding area coverage of the 4G and 5G network coverage, and another image showing the coverage extending 20 nautical miles offshore

Image above: Maps indicating the 4G and 5G coverage within Plymouth Sound and surrounding rivers, image on right shows the 20 Nautical mile range offshore.

Featuring five mobile sites, including one on The Sound’s iconic Napoleonic era fort, the network will provide private connectivity for guaranteed performance.

A Mobile Private Network (MPN) has all the features of the widespread mobile network, but is private and only available to specific users and devices. This has the benefit of increased security, guaranteed performance. An MPN can be deployed in any location, and can range from a single office or factory to wide areas of farmland or coastline.

The world’s first marine-focused 5G testbed

The city of Plymouth has long been established as a leader in the international maritime industry, and the deployment of a 5G MPN to create the world’s first marine-focused 5G testbed is another breakthrough.

Some of the first companies to make use of the 5G environment are:

  • Marine Assured Autonomy Testbed (MAAT): Led by Lloyds Register and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the MAAT programme will see the creation of a fully synthetic and virtualised environment to test, prove and assure marine autonomy scenarios by utilising live data from Smart Sound Connect on a digital platform. This “digital twin” environment will form the basis for a marine autonomy certification and classification programme for autonomous vehicles.

  • Requirements for Operational Assurance of Data Standards (ROADS): ROADS is an international collaborative programme to develop specific digital standards and measurements.  The creation of such standards will be supported by and coordinated through leading UK agencies and RTOs, including the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), who are partnering with Lloyd’s Register and Ocean Futures on the Maritime Assured Autonomous Testbed (MAAT) programme.

  • Bounty Project: The Bounty Project is an educational and public programme that utilises Bounty’s End, a replica sailing vessel from the Channel 4 series, “Mutiny”. The project will see live cameras and data sensors mounted on the vessel to provide live streaming from voyages around Plymouth Sound to be used publicly and in schools and colleges.

Councillor Mark Shayer, Deputy Leader of Plymouth City Council said: “Smart Sound Connect is cutting edge technology, and represents the culmination of more than a decade of development in Plymouth – it’s fantastic to see this come to fruition. As a port city, Plymouth’s success has long been entwined with the ocean and we’re now looking ahead to the future, offering cutting edge research and development facilities that will accelerate change in the industry, helping us all to work towards carbon neutrality and a sustainable marine future.”

Nick Gliddon, Business Director, Vodafone UK, said: “Smart Sound Connect is using cutting edge innovation to accelerate developments in marine technology through 5G. The 5G mobile private network will allow companies to test and develop new ideas and use cases beyond the shore’s edge, in a way that was not previously possible. Plymouth is helping the UK to become a global leader in this field.”

Dr James Fishwick, Head of Smart Sound at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said: “The launch of the ocean-focussed 5G network represents another huge step forward for Smart Sound as the UK’s leading testbed for advanced marine technologies. The high-speed network will allow our integrated fleet of autonomous platforms – which include state-of-the-art data buoys and robotic vessels loaded with environmental sensors – to communicate the unprecedented levels of ocean data they are able to capture in real-time. In turn, this will support further advances in high-tech marine innovation while also informing the world-leading scientific research being carried out here in Plymouth. This is a fantastic milestone for the city and for UK tech and innovation.”

Smart Sound Connect has been made possible thanks to £1.8 million in funding from the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership.

Chair of the Heart of the South West LEP, Karl Tucker, said: “This is an exciting time for Plymouth and the wider Heart of the South West region as it establishes itself as a pioneer in marine and maritime innovation. Smart Sound Connect forms a key part of the Ocean Futures programme that was launched last year, and which identifies the South West’s key strengths in the field of digital innovation together with marine autonomy and the development of clean maritime technologies. We are delighted to have invested Growth Deal funding to develop this world first ocean-based 5G testbed as part of our ongoing efforts to accelerate delivery of transformational opportunities and build back better.”

Alastair Wallace, Group Business Development Manager, Steatite Ltd, said: “Steatite is delighted to be involved with this ground-breaking project through the supply of world-class radio technology to create a resilient, high bandwidth MESH (Mobile AdHoc Network – MANET) network. This will support and enhance the overall test bed resulting in a totally distinctive marine communications environment.”

Smart Sound Connect augments Smart Sound Plymouth, the city’s advanced marine technology proving ground. Developed since 2006, Smart Sound leverages existing world class research facilities, including Plymouth Marine Laboratory’s Western Channel Observatory and the University of Plymouth’s Marine Station, and has benefited from the addition of capital, equipment and a highly skilled support team from the ERDF funded Marine Business Technology Centre (MBTC) led by Plymouth City Council and supported by research partners the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth.  That programme has supported nearly 400 businesses since 2018.

The testbed is located within the Plymouth Sound National Marine Park; the first marine park in the UK, which aims to be a national exemplar and thought leader on climate change and celebrates the natural environment and heritage.