Telecommunications: Composite enablers for future smart cities

18.8.2017 12:35 EET

Media

EXEL COMPOSITES BLOG

The construction market already presents a huge growth opportunity for the composites industry. But while many drivers for the increased use of composites in building – such as high strength, lightweight and design freedom – are well established, an emerging factor which will further favour their adoption is connectivity. As increasing urbanization and digitalization place more and more demands on telecommunications networks the use of RF transparent materials will become key.


Rapid urbanization is a global megatrend shaping the future of our world. Already, more than half of the world's population lives in urban areas, and this is expected to rise to 70% by 2025, with the majority of this growth taking place in Africa and Asia.  

This accelerating urbanization will lead to the creation of more 'megacities' of 10 million and more inhabitants. By 2030, there are expected to be at least 40 such megacities, with seven out of the top ten being in Asia. These urban areas will be the powerhouses of the global economy, exerting an economic strength greater than that of many countries.  

As powerful economic hubs and centres for innovation and productivity, cities will continue to attract millions of people seeking greater opportunities, more prosperity and a better quality of life. Managing this growth in a sustainable way will create huge challenges and require immense investments in infrastructure and services. Close to $78 trillion is expected to be spent on infrastructure worldwide between 2014 and 2025, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. 

The future is smart

One focus for future investment is telecommunications. Future cities will be smarter, implementing digital and data-driven solutions to help them operate more efficiently and provide new services for residents and businesses. This will only be possible with an effective and reliable telecommunications network. By 2035, analysts predict that in addition to computers and smartphones there could be 1 trillion connected devices worldwide (the envisaged Internet of Things) and current networks will be insufficient. A new digital infrastructure and fast, high capacity networks will be essential to meet ever growing needs for data transmission.  

The 5th generation mobile networks, 5G, scheduled for roll out from 2020 onwards, are the proposed answer. Operating at higher frequencies than the current 4G/LTE standard, 5G will offer faster data transmission of 20 GB/s and support at least 1 million connected devices per square kilometer. With a reduced latency of less than 1 ms, 5G will also guarantee the safety of autonomous vehicles.

On the downside, the higher frequency (3.5-78 GHz) 5G signals will have shorter (millimeter) wavelengths and will not travel as far as the previous longer wave signals. A dense network of antennas will be needed to boost the 5G signal locally. Integrating these thousands of unsightly antennas into city infrastructure, and preferably hidden from view, will be a challenge. A second issue relates to signal attenuation within buildings. All RF signals lose strength as they travel through intervening materials (to an extent determined by the material), but shorter wavelength signals are attenuated more rapidly than those with longer wavelengths. The trend towards better insulated, more energy efficient buildings is already exacerbating this problem and it will become even more of an issue with the move to 5G.

With these factors coming into play, when selecting materials for the next generation of city infrastructure architects and planners must now also take into account 5G signal penetration. And this is where RF transparent composites can earn an expanded role.

Composites and city infrastructure 

High strength and stiffness, low weight, corrosion resistance, low maintenance requirements, thermal stability and design freedom are some of the properties which make composites attractive construction materials for future cities. Composites are already extensively used in the manufacture of energy efficient windows and doors, facades and cladding, bridges and bridge reinforcements, street lighting and furniture, and rail and metro applications such as platforms and access structures. Composites also enable modular building concepts for the creation of affordable housing.

In addition, glass fiber composites possess good dielectric properties and have been used in telecommunications applications such as base stations and radomes for many years, where they offer minimal signal attenuation.

Exel Composites has a long history of supporting the telecommunications industry with innovative composite solutions. We also have extensive experience in developing composite structures for demanding applications in the building and construction market. Recognising the challenges facing these sectors in the future urban environment, and aware of the possibilities that composites offer to both, Exel is participating in a groundbreaking initiative aimed at developing 5G-enabled city infrastructure.

Smart light pole network

LuxTurrim5G is a joint R&D project focused on Smart City Digital Ecosystem Creation, bringing together 10 innovative companies and three respected research institutes. The project partners, including Nokia Bell Labs, Teleste, Vaisala, Tekes, Premix, Lammin Windows and Doors, C2 SmartLight, Tampere University of Technology (TUT) and VTT, offer a breadth of expertise spanning RF technologies, materials, urban planning and construction, and innovation management.

The ambitious three-year €15 million programme aims to develop enablers for the future smart city, making big data capacity available for residents and businesses through a network of 'smart light poles.' As well as providing energy-efficient lighting, the composite poles with integrated miniturized antennas and base stations will create a high-capacity 5G data transmission network. Sensors, information displays, cameras and other devices will also be incorporated in order to trial a variety of novel services and business concepts.

Composite light poles are a clever way to disguise the thousands of antennas which will be needed for the 5G network. As a leading manufacturer of composite antenna radomes and structures for GSM, 3G and 4G base stations, and utilising many years of experience in designing and manufacturing poles for airport approach lighting systems and other specialized applications, Exel has proposed a concept for the light pole based on a three pultruded sections.

The project will also construct test houses using different materials to compare the signal penetration through composites compared with conventional building materials and structures. One building element designed to serve as a wall structure has already been manufactured. This is based on a sandwich panel comprising a PIR foam core with composite skins and incorporates composite I beams and window frames. The excellent thermal insulation properties of glass fiber composite means this type of building element meets the requirements of energy efficient (lower lambda) buildings, while also allowing RF signal penetration.

A pilot project is currently underway in the Finnish city of Espoo, where Nokia is providing a 5G test bed network for use by the consortium partners. Materials testing will start in August. Different composite materials and constructions will be studied to determine the best combinations for optimal signal penetration.  

A huge opportunity

The increasing importance of RF transparent materials for next generation city infrastructure opens up a new market opportunity for the composites industry far beyond the scale of current construction applications. While the total market for composites in the global construction industry was valued at €11.3 billion in 2016, the market for 5G built infrastructure is expected to be worth €160 billion by 2025.  

To seize this opportunity all players in the composites supply chain need to be involved. Smart lighting pole networks will provide lucrative business opportunities for companies both large and small in the future, while energy efficient building systems with improved RF signal penetration present further opportunities for innovative designers, manufacturers and suppliers. 

Through the LuxTurrim5 project and close collaboration with leading mobile network operators Exel Composites will continue to pursue next generation telecommunications solutions. With our unrivalled composites design expertise and high volume manufacturing capabilities, we are ready to partner with organisations seeking to take on the challenges and opportunities presented by the smart cities of the future.

For further information on Exel Composites' innovative telecommunications solutions, please contact Mikko LassilaProduct Business Owner, Telecommunication.

Exel Oyj, Vantaa head office, Mäkituvantie 5, FI-01510 Vantaa, Finland, Tel +358 20 7541 200, Fax +358 20 7541 201