Glasgow set to be tech’s ‘living lab’ as part of £1bn university campus expansion

Technologies that support futuristic applications, such as surgeons performing operations remotely, could be developed in a ‘living lab’ as part of the University of Glasgow’s £1bn expansion of its historic campus.

The university is bidding to lead Britain’s second 5G technology demonstrator. Earlier this year, the UK Government awarded £16m to researchers at King’s College London and the Universities of Surrey and Bristol, to develop the first test network.

5G is expected to deliver reliable, ultra-fast mobile connectivity with the ability to process huge amounts of data and support complex applications, such as communication between autonomous vehicles, 3D virtual reality on phones, robotics, and remote surgery. The Government estimates that the technology could add £173bn to the UK economy by 2030.

“These applications require ultra-low latency to work,” said Muhammad Imran, professor of communications systems in the university’s School of Engineering, “reducing as far as possible the time it takes for a packet of data to travel between devices.

“But they will also raise our aspirations about  the  technology’s  possibilities,  such as in the ‘Internet of Skills’. For example, a surgeon operating remotely would receive haptic tactile feedback – the sensation of vibration, pressure, touch and texture – in real-time.”

Imran’s team is working on the prerequisites of a 5G network, such as energy and spectrum efficiency, and the ability to intelligently manage peaks and troughs in demand caused by the anticipated billions of connected devices, applications and smart objects sharing information ubiquitously.

“Universities, industry and government are investing heavily in this new technology as an essential backbone for the digital services of the future,” he said.

Professor Chris Pearce, lead for the university’s overarching Smart Campus project said: “Glasgow University is keen to contribute to this development through a programme of partnership research, based around the development of the smart campus. The aim is to create a living lab to test these requirements, and the potential of these new applications.”

The university is working with CGI, the world’s fifth largest independent information technology and business process services firm. Its geospatial specialists create life-like 3D maps and simulations of physical environments, detailed down to 2cm, which can provide dynamic real-time views of urban landscapes, both outside and inside buildings.

“5G depends on line-of-sight connection, and signal performance is affected by environmental factors, surface materials, traffic, and demand for data,” said Suzannah Brecknock, geospatial innovation lead in CGI’s Digital Insight team. “Therefore, 3D city modelling and accurate, real-time understanding of a continually changing physical environment is essential to plan and manage a 5G network.

“To create a 5G planning tool, we will need to capture accurate survey data of the entire estate, and transform this  into a 3D model. Sensor data and live CCTV feeds can be viewed directly in the platform, which can enable researchers understand what’s happening in an area of poor performance.

“Each building and physical asset, including trees and street furniture, will be linked to a centralised, open-source database which will contain accurate information about whether a building is listed, a tree is protected, surface materials, and  the locations of utility access points and power sources. Innovation around the collection of this data is an area of special interest for CGI, as we know our local authority clients will need to plan for 5G in the future.

“Local authorities understand all-too- well the challenges faced when trying to access property or asset information in a single place, as some of this data may not be readily available, or may be held by other parties. CGI has over 500 geospatial data specialists, and teams who specialise in ‘robotic process automation’ and machine learning, and has developed tools which can streamline the process of generating the data needed for 5G planning.

“The 3D platform also supports the development of virtual and augmented reality applications, which provides opportunities for remote training and field support. Indeed, the educational and skills development potential around 5G technology is another reason we are so excited about the University’s Smart Campus project,” said Brecknock.

The proposed 5G demonstrator, details of which were outlined at the Digital Cities event in Glasgow last month, hosted by FutureScot in association with The Sunday Times Scotland, is one part of the university’s ambitious expansion plans.

Last December, it gave the go-ahead to spend £430m over the next five years as part of a £1bn, 10-year investment. The first phase includes a new learning and teaching hub on University Avenue, linking to a refurbished Boyd Orr building, due for completion in September 2019.

Earlier this year, Glasgow City Council granted the university planning consent for its plans for the former Western Infirmary site, overlooking the River Kelvin. It will become home to new buildings for engineering and arts, a research hub and innovation zone, the Institute of Health and Wellbeing, and the Adam Smith Business School.

“We believe [this] will be a major economic driver for the city and for Scot- land as well as underpin this university’s world-leading position,” said principal and vice-chancellor Professor Anton Muscatelli when the decision was announced. “This will be one of the biggest educational infrastructure projects in Scotland’s history.”

Last month, FutureScot was taken on a tour of the planned expansion by Michael Burns, business development manager at the university’s research, strategy and innovation office.

Passing through Bute Hall, out onto the South Front overlooking Kelvin- grove Art Gallery and Museum, Burns spoke about the university’s aim to link its expansion with some of Glasgow’s other key assets, including Kelvingrove and Kelvin Hall, the Scottish Events Campus, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and, across the Clyde, the creative media quarter.

“We’re very aware that the effective- ness of what we develop as a physical project will depend on the strength of the digital infrastructure that we can connect to, most notably the 5G campus, a digital district in the heart of the city, that we are beginning to develop with strategic partners,” said Burns.

If the 5G demonstrator gets the go- ahead, it will be up and running in time for Glasgow hosting the UEFA European Football Championship in 2020, an ideal showcase for the technology. It is also the year that the European Commission has set as one of its connectivity targets; that 5G should be commercially available in at least one major city in each EU member state.

“The demonstrator has the advantage of being part of the largest capital invest- ment in western Scotland,”said Burns. “We think of this project as a strong example of the university sector driving change through collaboration with city and national partners.”

Ultimately, the will focus will be on innovation in – and the integration of – data, digital and engineering technolo- gies. It will, said Burns, “create a world- changing, connected, healthy and vibrant university campus and provide a platform for the research, development and demonstration of city scale solutions with social, technological and economic impact for the city and the city region.”