In January, the UK government provided  funding – £15.2m – to support nine UK projects to trial ways in which 5G can improve people’s lives and build back better following the pandemic.

One of the recipients is a three-way consortium: civil engineers BAM Nuttall, network software specialists Attocore, and Building Research Establishment, the world’s leading building science centre.

BAM and Attocore will work alongside the Scotland 5G Centre to develop the potential of the project as a commercial solution across the wider construction sector. This will draw on the expertise of Strathclyde University in rural network development; Glasgow University on the use of 5G in managing the built environment and the Scotland 5G Centre in general for its wider network and dissemination strengths. This will directly assist the sustainability of the project, beyond its initial DCMS funding stage.

The consortium will use the funding to set up a private 5G network at BAM’s regional office in Kilsyth and at a windfarm construction project in Shetland.  They intend to use cameras, drones, mixed reality and Internet of Things sensors to monitor construction process and track assets remotely.

We asked Colin Evison, Head of Innovation at BAM Nuttall, to tell us more about it.

Why did you apply for this funding?

One of BAM’s missions to build sustainable environments that enhance people’s lives. We believe the project outcomes will benefit not only our business but also the wider construction industry in its drive to improve productivity.

And it goes further.  By deploying 5G core and radios from vendors not currently present in the public networks, the project is also playing its part in encouraging further diversification among telecoms vendors.

Tell us about the wind farm project

BAM Nuttall has been appointed by SSE to deliver a new sub-station for the new Viking windfarm in Shetland which is currently under construction.  This will in turn connect with a subsea high voltage cable – a ‘superconnector’ –  to transfer wind-generated power to the national grid.  It’s a complex, geographically challenging project but when complete will bring a host of economic and sustainability benefits for Scotland.

What will the 5G project test?

We will explore how 5G can support the construction industry in future.  We will be testing 5G-powered cameras, drones, robots and sensors at our construction sites in Kilsyth near Glasgow and Shetland.   Ultimately we want to know if 5G-powered solutions will enable us to maximise productivity of our connected and autonomous construction processes.

We will also test out the technical possibilities of OpenRAN – an alternative way of building telecoms networks that allows for greater interoperability of radio equipment between vendors. This approach gives operators more choice and flexibility as they roll out 5G infrastructure.

What is it about the windfarm project that makes it an ideal candidate for a 5G test environment?

We have a longstanding relationship with SSE. Both BAM and SSE are committed to finding exemplar solutions that meet sustainability goals so finding more efficient ways of monitoring the progress of this complex project is key.  The rural location of the windfarm also made it an ideal choice, given that existing connectivity is often patchy.

Think of it as two connectivity workstreams.  We have our existing, highly sophisticated IT connectivity network in place.   Layered over that will be a second 5G-enabled workstream to run in parallel.  By taking this approach, we can try out our new 5G tools and benchmark against what we do now.  In this way we will be to draw comparisons on what additional benefits 5G brings to the table – eg reductions in manpower, reductions in the need to travel to site, cost savings and so on.

Can you share an example of how 5G communications will benefit the wider construction industry?

Let’s look at the use of drones.  The construction industry already uses drones to obtain survey  photographs or to obtain images to create 3D models for example.  However, this produces very large data files which can be problematic to share.  However, with 5G connectivity, you can share large data files freely – as live feeds  if you wish.

In future, we expect to be able to reduce head count on construction site.

We’re already working closely with the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre in this regard and are taking part in a conference it is organising on 26 March.  This will be one of the topics we’ll be discussion.

What’s the timeline for the rollout of this private network?

We are currently designing and planning the 5G network.  Installation is likely by early summer.

The project will run until 31 March 2022, and we aim to provide early findings this year as they become available.