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Mobile communications technology 5G - the near future


While 5G is the successor to 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution), the fifth generation is a great deal more than just a new mobile communications standard. The extremely powerful mobile communications technology is what makes the promises of Industrie 4.0 and autonomous driving possible, and Fraunhofer is playing a decisive part in developing 5G technologies. The researchers know exactly what the potential of 5G is – and the hurdles that need to be overcome. 1)

5G will offer more to users than simply ultrafast communications; this better-than-WiFi mobile standard should also deliver enhanced positioning to users. Accordingly, it is set to enable a wide range of potential applications from continuously-tracked smart factories to swarms of high-precision drones and assisted or self-driving cars. 2)

The communication capabilities of current cellular networks are already used routinely to supplement satnav-based smartphone positioning performance. But 5G offers in addition positioning capabilities, thanks to its adoption of higher frequency signal bands to deliver wide bandwidth, low delay communications.

The shorter range of these higher frequency bands also demands a dense infrastructure of base stations, which make possible the easy triangulation of user positions by calculating the time and angle of signals.


Figure 1: The coming of 5G. ESA has launched a call for proposals to demonstrate the capabilities of new 5G cellular networks to support positioning and timing applications to complement satellite navigation, just as today's smartphones harness cellular data to support their positioning services (image credit: ESA)

Indeed, positioning is likely to become an inherent part of the 5G infrastructure, enabling optimal use of bandwidth across a given area while also helping usher the IoT (Internet of Things) into being.

ESA has opened a new call for proposals to European industry, looking to develop commercial ideas related to 5G for PNT (Positioning, Navigation and Timing).

Supporting this call – which takes place through ESA's Navigation Innovation and Support Program (NAVISP), boosting the competitiveness of European industry in the PNT domain beyond solely satellite navigation – external experts joined Agency personnel in a recent webinar looking into possible use cases in detail.

"NAVISP's ambition is to generate European champions in the PNT world," said Pierluigi Mancini, NAVISP program manager. "Without linking with different technologies and differing markets that are essentially fostering opportunity for PNTs we will not be able to do this, and it is in this frame we are positioning this initiative."


Figure 2: Driving into the future. A highly autonomous self-driving shuttle has entered service at ESA/ESTEC. Its official inauguration took place on Tuesday (27 October 2020), when it was assigned a suitably spacey name – 'Orbiter' – chosen through an employee competition (image credit: ESA, L. Cervantes)

ESA/ESTEC in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, is being used as a testbed for the automated shuttle, to assess its viability as a ‘last mile' solution for public transport. ESTEC was selected because it is a controlled private environment but with all common transport found on public roads – cars, bikes, pedestrians and roundabouts – the shuttle is able to operate in mixed traffic.

"Through the projects we've already implemented through NAVISP we realize that the kind of critical applications we're talking about today require robust PNT solutions," said Rafael Lucas Rodriguez, heading ESA's NAVISP technical program office.

"Satellite navigation by itself is not enough, because of various environmental vulnerabilities. Accordingly, 5G for PNT is a potential backup solution in many cases, potentially allowing a seamless transition from outdoor to indoor coverage."


Figure 3: Smart factory 5G positioning needs (image credit: Fraunhofer IIS)

Karin Loidl of Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits – speaking for the industry body 5G-ACIA , the Alliance for Connected Industry and Automation – discussed one major indoor use case for 5G positioning: autonomously-operating smart factories, otherwise known as ‘industry 4.0'.

"Factories of today have to be very flexible and adaptive to changing situations," she explained. "Production lines are not stable over 10 years or five years or months; they might have to change in a week. The need is for positioning of all the moving objects, for all the changes in this factory."


Figure 4: Industry body 5G-ACIA, the Alliance for Connected Industry and Automation (image credit: ESA)

5G-ACIA surveyed its 75 members to define their positioning needs for smart factories, amounting to demanding requirements in terms of accuracy, latency and availability.

"You normally like to track incoming goods, then you have forklifts operated both by humans and autonomously, responsible for the provision of goods to the assembly sites," Karin Loidl added.

"Positioning is also important at the assembly site, because you like to track tools, robots and HR applications. There are also many sensors, not always fixed like in the past, whose positioning is needed too."

She emphasized that overall industry demand for positioning was substantial, with the market for mobile robotics forecast to grow to €49 billion by 2023, asset tracking up to €23 billion by 2022, positioning-enabled augmented reality to €65 billion by 2024 and ‘geofencing' – or the use of virtual boundaries – up to €1.5 billion in 2024.

Michael Baus, Project Director at Robert Bosch GmbH turned the focus outdoors to talk of the current and future positioning requirements of automobiles, from navigation systems and road tolling to eCall – sharing vehicle positioning with rescue services in the event of an accident – and assisted or self-driving cars.

"To know the position of your car is very important to use maps and all the rich information inside the maps," he said. "Quite a vast range of functions make use of positioning, across differing application vehicles from motorcycles to trucks."


Figure 5: Automotive positioning needs. The automotive sector has a variety of positioning use cases, seen from top left down: in-car navigation systems, eCall – giving your positions to emergency services in response to accidents – and vehicle to vehicle or vehicle or vehicle to infrastructure, to be made use of. From top right down: eCall for a variety of different vehicle types, assisted driving systems and finally automated driving (image credit: Bosch)

The technology employed to do this needs to be stable, safe and usable all over the world, he added, and expressed hope that 5G could play a major role by increasing the coverage, availability and reliability of automotive positioning, at a reasonable price.

Cristiano Baldoni, CEO of d-flight looked skyward, anticipating a future when crewed aircraft are vastly outnumbered by all manner of automated aerial vehicles performing a wide variety of uses, what he termed ‘the internet of drones'.

He explained that the traditional air traffic control model needs to evolve to accommodate such a shift, based on automated monitoring, traffic management and collision avoidance.

5G could potentially serve as a means of drone-to-drone and drone-to-ground communication but also positioning for satnav-denied areas such as urban canyons, as well as sharpen the positioning of high-accuracy drone applications such as goods delivery, precision farming and infrastructure monitoring – and eventually person-carrying aerial taxis.


Figure 6: How drones will be used in future. The many uses of drones, whose numbers are set to dwarf the level of human-operated aircraft in the future (image credit: d-Flight)

Ivan De Francesca, senior network transport expert at Telefonica Global Services highlighted the fact that while traditional cellular networks required only frequency synchronization, 5G demands much more rigorous time and phase synchronization to maintain network stability.

"The technology gap comes with the most demanding applications, like high-accuracy positioning or self-driving cars," he said. "We might need to adapt or modify the current architecture we are using today, and that is where this 5G for PNT initiative comes into the scene, because its results are going to be vital to understand how to move forward."

ESA's Alessandra Fiumara, responsible for managing this call for proposals, clarified the requirements and the planning for submission of proposals, encouraging all interested bidders to submit their proposals before 31 January 2021 and take advantage of the networking platform specially put in place for this call to facilitate the formation of teams.

1) "Mobile communications technology 5G," Fraunhofer, 2020, URL:

2) "5G to help smart factories and masses of drones find their way," ESA Applications, 4 November 2020, URL:


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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