Dead zones, bad reception or a lack of mobile data coverage – persistent problems even in 2020, particularly in rural areas. At the same time, 5G, the next generation of mobile data infrastructure, is waiting in the wings, and many people are wondering what will be the next big step.
The fifth generation of mobile communications will be up to a thousand times faster and have significantly greater bandwidth than current systems. Good news for consumers, but also for business, as 5G makes it possible to network machines and everyday objects and to control autonomous vehicles, for example.
A global network with blanket coverage
When it comes to availability, 5G is also set to eclipse anything that has gone before. A research project in Bremen with the rather cryptic name 5GSatOpt is one of the groups working on this. The project aims to use space to expand the mobile data infrastructure to the furthest corners of the earth, with the help of constellations of small satellites.
These satellites are intended to supplement radio masts, particularly in rural areas, where mast density tends to be much lower than in urban areas. Mobile devices connect to the satellites either directly or via simple relay stations on the ground. The relays are easy to install and operate, making them suitable for use in remote areas.
An American leads the way
The scientists in Bremen are basing their endeavours on a new concept popularised primarily by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company: swarms of small satellites. With his Starlink project the multifaceted entrepreneur aims to deploy up to 30,000 mini satellites in space to provide a global internet service. So far, SpaceX has launched around 500 of them into orbit. This commercial exploitation of space is often referred to as New Space.
In Bremen, they are also planning for large numbers of mini satellites – somewhere between several hundred and a few thousand. “Mass production will make swarms of small satellites increasingly cheaper to manufacture, and their large number makes the whole system more resilient overall. For example, we are aiming to always have three satellites working closely together as they send a beam to earth in order to achieve the coverage required,” explains Professor Armin Dekorsy, head of the Communications Engineering department at the University of Bremen.
5G research from Bremen
Unlike Elon Musk’s satellite internet, the Bremen project has based its research on the 5G mobile telecommunication standard. Although there are currently no 5G satellites in space, Dekorsy is sure their project will not be outflanked by Starlink: “Some of the world’s biggest companies are backing the expansion of the 5G standard to mini satellites, so this is definitely the right area for us to do research in.”
Developing 5G technologies for mini satellites is a complex task. It is difficult to test under real-life conditions, of course, as satellite launches are expensive. That is why one of the main objectives of the work in Bremen is to develop a simulation platform which would allow the interaction between satellite swarms and terrestrial 5G components to be trialled on the ground.
“The project is following the traditional path of industrial research, meaning that we create the basic principles and ideas for companies in the field to adopt and develop into products,” adds Frank Bittner, Research Manager in the Communications Engineering department.