The 5G-equipped smart helmet that hopes to spot danger before you do

Aussie telco Telstra has partnered with clothing brand Arenberg on a helmet prototype spruiked by Anna Meares.

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It’s been a big week for telecommunications companies getting into the cycling space. A few days ago it was Vodafone releasing a bike light with GPS tracking and a SIM card; now it’s Australia’s biggest telco, Telstra, revealing a 5G-enabled helmet that is “giving cyclists the ability to see around corners”.

Let’s break this down.

The Telstra Heads Up Helmet project is a collaboration between Telstra and Aussie start-up Arenberg, a brand best known for its cycling clothing. Arenberg provided the helmet – the upcoming, crowdfunded Road Helmet One which the brand describes as “the world’s first road performance helmet with integrated live video streaming capabilities.” Telstra provided additional technology, 5G connectivity, and the data processing that sits at the heart of the project.

The system works by capturing video from the helmet, then beaming that data to Telstra’s data processing and analytics cloud via a 5G-enabled phone. Once processed, data from the video is then combined with other relevant data sourced from nearby vehicles.

“Information is then fed to a rider through a speaker in the helmet to provide real-time safety information, alerts and warnings,” writes Gianpaolo Carraro, incubation and product excellence executive at Telstra. “It’s more than just giving cyclists eyes in the back of their head: it’s giving them the ability to see around corners where traffic is at a standstill, and even helps them predict the future.”

Before we move on, it’s worth understanding how the system is sourcing data from other vehicles.

For years now, Telstra – and indeed many other tech companies – has been working in the so-called “Vehicle-to-Everything” (V2X) space, testing and developing technology that will connect vehicles to one another, and to road infrastructure like traffic lights. The data collected and shared between those nodes can help to improve the efficiency of traffic flow and improve the safety of those using the network.

Telstra’s then-Chief Technology Officer Håkan Eriksson gave an example of the technology’s potential in a 2018 article on the company’s website.

“If a trial vehicle ahead performs an emergency brake, it will send this message to a V2X-equipped car following — potentially before a forward collision radar or driver notices the event,” he wrote. “In these situations, mere milliseconds can make a huge difference.”

Nikos Katinakis, group head of Telstra’s networks & IT department, provided another example of the benefits of connected vehicles and infrastructure: “Vehicles could also detect red light violations, which are received from vehicles that might be about to enter an active intersection against the light,” he wrote.

In 2018 Telstra started a trial involving two vehicles that were running Cellular V2X setups. By 2020 that technology was being used by more than 500 connected vehicles in a Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads project.

Which brings us back to the helmet prototype, announced this week.

The project was rolled out with a snappy two-minute video featuring Australia’s queen of the velodrome, 11-time world champ and Olympic gold medalist, Anna Meares. In the video (which you can see above), Meares rides up to an intersection where the helmet beeps at her and says “car on left”, alerting her to a vehicle that is about to enter the intersection at speed. In the video, the advanced warning gives her a chance to stop in time.

A screengrab from the Telstra video.

Audio alerts (via the helmet’s bone-conduction headphones) can also warn the user about nearby crashes, traffic congestion, and roadworks. Perhaps most promisingly, though, the Telstra Heads Up Helmet can seemingly warn the rider about car doors being flung open ahead.

“When a driver or passenger opens their door, real-time video from the bike helmet is sent over 5G and analysed in a cloud platform, where the opening car door hazard is identified,” Carraro writes. “The platform then pushes down an audio alert to the rider to react it time, thanks to the super low-latency connectivity offered by our 5G network.”

The video shows the anti-dooring tech in action.

Telstra says the impetus for this project came from rising cyclist numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic – an increase of 270% in Melbourne alone, according to the telco. Telstra wanted to do its bit to ensure rising cyclist numbers don’t mean rising cyclist fatality numbers. “When we saw the problem of cyclist safety take the spotlight, we knew we could do more,” Carraro writes.

Of course this project is also about showing off Telstra’s 5G technology, which it started rolling out across its cellular network in 2018. With this project (and others like it) Telstra is keen to show that 5G can be used for much more than high-speed web browsing and video streaming while on the move.

“5G will change not only the future of cycling, I think it will change the future of transport overall,” said Todd Essery, Telstra Labs’s innovation lead. “Connected cars, connected trucks, connected cyclists, vehicles starting to talk to traffic lights – really all of them working in cooperation, and 5G is a big enabler for that.”

Again, it’s worth noting that the idea of vehicles communicating with one another on the road isn’t exactly new. V2X protocols have been around since as early as 2010 and Toyota started installing it in cars in 2016 (but stopped a few years later when other manufacturers didn’t come to the party). But compared to the 4G protocols used in previous years, the low latency and faster data speeds available through 5G (at least 100 Mbps, 5-10 times the speed of 4G) should allow such systems to operate in something much closer to real time.

So how excited should cyclists be by this development?

The technology certainly looks promising in the video, but there’s a difference between a slick marketing production and the reality of riding on the open road. How speedy is the communication really? Is the system really able to capture video of an opening car door, send that to the cloud, run it through Telstra’s machine learning model, then send an audio alert to the rider in less time than it will take the rider to see the door opening themselves? I’ll likely remain sceptical until I see it in action myself.

There’s a question about signal range too. While 5G is available in many big cities, coverage is far from ubiquitous. What happens to this technology in an area outside of 5G coverage?

That might not be such a problem. Eriksson wrote about this very problem in the context of 4G back in 2018. “The strength of Cellular V2X technology is that it combines both short-range radios (which allows vehicles to communicate directly with one another using cellular technology, but without going via a cellular network) and wide-area 4G-based mobile communications when available,” he wrote. “So, even in the case that there’s no mobile coverage, the most urgent safety messages will still get through and help to save lives.”

Presumably the same is true with 5G.

Interestingly, the cyclist response to the Telstra x Arenberg project has been quite negative so far. Judging by social media and website commentary, there’s a feeling that this technology puts further onus on cyclists to go above and beyond in order to protect their own safety.

The focus, many suggest, should instead be on developing better cycling infrastructure, teaching drivers to look out for cyclists before throwing open their car doors, or developing technology that detects cyclists and stops car doors from being thrown open in their path.

All of these concerns are valid, and yet they miss the point. Yes, work is needed in all of these areas, but that doesn’t make the Telstra x Arenberg project any less interesting or important. It’s not a “one or the other” situation. If cycling is going to be made safer in the future, it will be through a raft of developments, some of them social, many of them technological. The work Telstra and Arenberg are doing here is an important part of the overall puzzle.

The potential here is significant. A road network where all vehicles and infrastructure are connected will have great benefits for safety, traffic efficiency, and energy use, particularly when we factor in autonomous vehicles (AVs).*

While the roll-out of AVs is taking longer than many expected (thanks largely to a quagmire of regulatory issues), that technology, once widespread, will allow a significant leap forward for road safety. After all, human error is a contributing factor in more than 90% of road crashes. Combine AVs with technology like the Telstra Heads Up Helmet project and cycling could well be safer than ever.

(*Imagine a road network where all motor vehicles are autonomous and connected to one another, and to the traffic light control system. Vehicles could travel bumper-to-bumper in convoy (saving fuel through drafting), with any braking done at the front of the line communicated instantly to those vehicles behind. Traffic lights signals could be customised in real-time to account for the number of vehicles approaching from each direction, optimising traffic flows.)

Of course, there’s still plenty of work to be done. The Telstra x Arenberg helmet is only a prototype, V2X technology is really still in its trial phase, and AVs are still years away from ubiquity. For technology like the Telstra Heads Up Helmet to be viable (and actually useful) we need cars everywhere to be equipped with V2X technology. That will require the cooperation of vehicle manufactures who, at this stage, aren’t really incentivised to cover the high costs of developing such features. Getting to that point will take years, and quite possibly a legislative push.

Still, the potential is there. And the work being done now by Telstra and Arenberg, and others like them, is an important and exciting step along the way.

CyclingTips would like to thank VeloClub member Julian Del Beato for his valuable assistance during the preparation of this article.

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