Professor Maria Merlyne de Souza, member of the IEEE and Professor of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Sheffield University discuses why infrastructure must change in order to meet the demands of emerging technology
More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, with a further 2.5 billion residents estimated by 2050. Metropolises face increasing infrastructure demands as citizens require better transport, ultrafast broadband and ‘smarter’ devices sustained by green electricity. While there are many exciting and promising technologies emerging that could impact our lives, many of these are incompatible with our current, outdated infrastructure. Therefore, appropriate investment is required before even considering such innovative technologies.
In the 2019 spending round, Sajid Javid, Chancellor of the Exchequer, outlined the UK’s future investment plans. Javid insisted that the Government will need to ‘prioritise’ investment policies, stressing the importance of developing the UK’s infrastructure. Highlighting the need for faster broadband and mobile connections, as well as electric cars and green transport, he made the case for ‘high quality and reliable infrastructure… from the motor highway to the information highway’ and backed an infrastructure revolution.
When it comes to truly revolutionising the way people live and work, the proliferation of sensor technology is a critical starting point. City spaces generate vast amounts of data, from day-to-day traffic and pedestrian footfalls, energy resources, to waste management and collection, but the UK is yet to fully exploit the potential of real-time information. Data from smart sensors, across various city structures, networks and traffic systems, can provide meaningful insight to achieve increased functionality and efficiency. For example, this can be seen in the accurate tracking of transport, with the potential to influence or filter traffic, as it occurs.
Driverless vehicles – autonomous communities
Unfortunately, human error is a leading factor in most road traffic accidents. With the continued improvement of sensing systems – such as Radar and Lidar – fully autonomous cars will navigate by constantly adapting to their surroundings, guided by the roll out of communication infrastructure onto roads. As a result, driverless cars are likely to reduce congestion and emissions in heavily populated areas. However, there will need to be adequate infrastructure for safe and secure communication between vehicle-to-the-transport-management-system and vehicle-to-vehicle. Further challenges include data privacy and ethical issues relating to the responsibility for driverless vehicles. Moreover, they need to be managed properly, alongside decarbonisation measures to ensure overall societal objectives. That means additional green electricity not just for ~25000 electric vehicles today but for the ~32 million vehicles that are currently on the road. Such a strong demand will hopefully spur market investors towards decarbonised sources of energy.
Smart grid – energy efficiency
A recent report by the Department of Energy & Climate Change, in partnership with Ofgem, revealed the potential of smart grids, outlining ways in which smart technology could be used to ensure the sustainable use of energy and automate the management of resources.  According to the report, people must ‘continue to invest in smart technologies in the near term and integrate them into existing networks’ if the UK is to maximise the economic and commercial benefits.
The smart grid concept involves integrating renewable and large-scale battery storage in a stable manner within the UK’s pre-existing energy networks, to enable constant communication between the supplier, distributor and consumer about usage and cost. Unlike a conventional grid, a smart grid allows a two-way flow of energy and information between consumers and suppliers, enabling the balancing of loads by transferring power back to a grid when required. This is a process called peak shaving, which could, for example, see energy transferred back to the grid from the battery of a parked vehicle, or from a solar panel. Incorporating monitoring and sensing technologies within the wider grid infrastructure would then create an interactive electricity grid, which can comprehensively manage energy generation, transmission and distribution.
For this to become a reality, it requires technology that can consistently handle a significantly larger fraction of decarbonised energy, which is inherently unpredictable. It requires sophisticated software algorithms that can manage fluctuating usage over various times of the day. To manage this effectively, ultra-fast and more efficient wide bandgap semiconductors in power converters are needed, as well as a national rollout of smart metres to allow complete visibility and to monitor local energy consumption.
5G and the need to invest in infrastructure
Soon, the UK will see the mass deployment of 5G – bringing with it increased connectivity, faster speeds and improved reliability. This is a key enabler that underpins the proposed infrastructure revolution. This is because 5G facilitates large volumes of data that will be inevitably generated by autonomous vehicles and smart devices – all of which require a stronger and more secure method of connectivity.
However, one of the major obstacles to a complete 5G rollout is the vast amount of energy efficiency that such an undertaking requires. It will require more repeaters and high-performing semi-conductors and a far denser deployment of cells compared to 4G. Likewise, power amplifiers are needed to ensure high-efficiency broadband demanded by IoT devices. In short, such an infrastructure upgrade needs to be considered from every angle, especially energy demand.
Clearly, there are many exciting technologies being developed that have the potential to greatly revolutionise the way we live and interact. While there has been concern about jobs being taken away from the UK economy, there are even more opportunities being created as a result of these new developments.
The UK needs engineers trained in R&D, installation, maintenance and deployment of these infrastructure elements right up to the point of use. These jobs are highly skilled and could offer rewarding careers for the UK’s future workforce. As a result, young people should be encouraged into STEM careers and inspire businesses to invest more into their training. As mentioned in a report by Accenture, ‘the next generation of wireless technology is expected to create three million new jobs and boost annual GDP’, however, this requires an initial investment from telecom operators. This is just one example of why investing in infrastructure is an investment in the UK’s future, creating jobs as well new industries and ways of sustainable living.
 McKinsey and co., Smart Cities: digital solutions for a more liveable future, June 2018, https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/industries/capital%20projects%20and%20infrastructure/our%20insights/smart%20cities%20digital%20solutions%20for%20a%20more%20livable%20future/mgi-smart-cities-full-report.ashx
 Speech, Sajid Javid, Spending Round 2019, 04/09/2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/spending-round-2019-sajid-javids-speech
 Smart Grid Forum, Department of Energy & Climate Change, Smart Grid Vision and Routemap (2014), https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/285417/Smart_Grid_Vision_and_RoutemapFINAL.pdf
Editor's Recommended Articles
Must Read >> Infrastructure improvements to boost the UK economy