Huawei privately pitched Ottawa on 5G drone taxis, robots and self-driving cars

AP Photo/Andy Wong

Huawei technology can fuel mass adoption of drone taxis, robots and self-driving cars, according to a private report the company presented to the federal government about its 5G ambitions.

The Chinese tech giant’s October 2017 presentation, obtained through an access-to-information request, lays out a number of the company’s specific goals—such as having certain kinds of self-driving trucks on the road by 2020.

The report also outlines the company’s global research and development aspirations in areas including drones, smart manufacturing, virtual and augmented reality and remote surgery.

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Talking Point

Huawei detailed 5G-enabled technologies it was developing—including self-driving cars, drone taxis and remote surgery—in a 2017 presentation to the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Since then, the Chinese tech giant has launched a number of the products. Ottawa, meanwhile, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop several of the technologies described in the presentation, as it prepares to build out its 5G infrastructure.

Huawei did not directly respond to The Logic’s questions about whether its current plans in Canada and globally align with those laid out in the 2017 presentation, made to the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED).

Since delivering the presentation, the company has launched a number of new products that were outlined in the document. And, the federal government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars advancing some of the specific technologies Huawei is working on.

At the same time, the U.S., New Zealand and Australia have restricted the company’s 5G-enabled devices, and have denied Huawei the opportunity to build 5G infrastructure in their countries, citing national security concerns related to the company’s ties to Beijing following a global campaign by the U.S. pressuring countries to cut Huawei off. Canada is currently reviewing Huawei’s role in building 5G.

“We hope any decisions the Government of Canada makes on 5G are made based on technology, and not politics,” said Chris Pereira, director of public affairs for Huawei Canada. “We have extensive relationships with all the major carriers in Canada to whom we have sold 4G LTE equipment, and in some cases 3G equipment going back to 2009.”

In the presentation, Huawei makes the case for having certain fully autonomous vehicles capable of operating by 2020, given adequate 5G networks. Earlier in June, the company launched a smart-vehicles department designed to go head-to-head with U.S. automakers, but has offered few specifics on what the department would focus on.

The 2017 presentation highlights self-driving trucks as a focus area, specifically something called high-density platooning, a convoy of transport trucks that communicate on the road using sensors and wireless data to measure and adjust their speed and distance from each other to reduce drag. Transport Canada is currently studying platooning for its potential to reduce carbon emissions. Huawei’s presentation states that 5G technology could allow trucks to use 30 per cent less fuel by reducing the distance between them from four metres to one metre, thereby reducing the wind drag.

The presentation also details how tele-operated driving—where a driver controls a vehicle remotely—would be particularly useful in dangerous areas like mines and harbours. The required technology would be less complex than fully autonomous driving and it would also necessitate fewer drivers, according to the presentation.

The federal government has contributed tens of millions of dollars to similar autonomous vehicle R&D described in the presentation. Most recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $40 million for BlackBerry to develop autonomous-vehicle technology.

Getting autonomous cars on roads will require 5G infrastructure and collaboration between the automotive industry and telecoms, Huawei argues in its presentation. It highlights the company’s membership in the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA), which develops and promotes 5G on behalf of both industries. Canadian telecoms Telus and Bell, as well as BlackBerry, are also 5GAA members.

Huawei also mentions technology it’s developing for a delivery and a taxi service, both by drone, which would require 5G infrastructure. In November 2017, shortly after its presentation to ISED, Huawei launched the Digital Sky Initiative, an R&D lab focused on drone technology. And, in June 2018, Huawei signed a partnership with Unifly, a software company, to develop technology for air traffic regulators to locate and manage drones in the airspace.

In the presentation, Huawei makes the case to ISED for establishing 5G networks to provide cellular connectivity for drones so they can operate outside a controller’s line of sight. 5G would also make it possible for drones to fly at low altitudes, which is important for delivering goods. The presentation also outlines the need for regulations around how drones can operate in no-fly zones.

Huawei also argues that drones would have “wide commercial applications” in areas including transport, agriculture, entertainment, security and telecommunications. The presentation singles out LIDAR 3D ground mapping, a technology Uber has increasingly been using to assist its self-driving cars, as a potential use case.

Canada recently introduced new regulations for operating drones, which came into effect on June 1. Those rules prohibit them from flying near airports and emergency scenes.

The rules are meant to address safety concerns as drone technology progresses quickly in Canada. On June 4, Air Canada announced its cargo division signed an exclusive deal with Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) that will see the airline company sell and market the drone-delivery service across up to 150,000 Canadian delivery routes.

Derek Mellon, media relations manager for ISED, did not directly address questions about the circumstances surrounding the presentation from Huawei, and whether the federal government had agreed to support any of Huawei’s 5G efforts outlined in the presentation, either through funding or via regulatory changes.

“ISED regularly meets with and gathers information from a wide variety of equipment providers [and] telecommunication service providers,” said Mellon.

Governments across Canada have provided Huawei with funding and incentives to help it develop its technologies and networks. Ontario, for example, promised the company’s Canadian arm up to $16 million in 2016 to build out 5G in the province. And, Huawei receives a 15 per cent tax credit for R&D expenditures from the federal government, plus provincial tax credits from Ontario, B.C. and Quebec.

Huawei’s lobbying of the federal government has picked up in recent years. The company lobbied twice between 2012 and 2017 and then eight times in 2018. In the past three months, the company has added three lobbyists in Ottawa. The company is also increasing its spending in Canada, promising in February to add 200 high-paying jobs in the country. In February, Huawei Canada announced $207 million in R&D spending over the next year, a 15 per cent increase over 2018.

Huawei’s presentation outlines how 5G will soon power smart factories via robots whose activity is coordinated wirelessly via 5G networks. The company also highlights loading work at ports, as well as smart manufacturing, under the heading “Huawei Efforts on Exploration of Smart Factory.” The 2017 presentation mentions cooperative robots, as well, which work with other robots or humans to perform tasks together. Such robots are commonly used in smart factories.

Since 2017, Huawei has partnered with Toshiba to develop a smart-factory platform using Huawei technology that can remotely monitor machines. It’s also partnered with Petro-CyberWorks Information Technology to pilot smart factories for oil refinery and production. And, Huawei’s technology is being used in the U.K.’s first smart factory, which started test operations in February.

The Canadian government is also focused on making factories more efficient through technology. It committed up to nearly $230 million toward that goal through the Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster to develop new technologies like robotics and 3D printing for the manufacturing sector.

Huawei notes in its presentation that it is developing cloud-based augmented- and virtual-reality (VR) technologies, and states that cloud-based VR and AR technology will be a “Key Driving Force of 5G.” Huawei’s ambitions include using the technology for gaming, meetings and video holography, as well as developing 4K and 8K video-streaming capabilities, which have about four and eight times as many pixels, respectively, as standard high definition.  

The technology would put Huawei up against Google’s cloud-based streaming service, Stadia, which the company announced in March. The service delivers games capable of streaming in 4K, but requires immense amounts of data to operate; 5G networks could add the coverage and data capacity to allow wider adoption of 4K streaming.

In May, Huawei offered a glimpse of its 4K-streaming developments, conducting a live video stream over a 5G network in China using the technology, which it claimed was the first time that’s been done in the world. There have been recent reports, meanwhile, that Huawei is working on a 5G 8K television that could be released in late 2019. The presentation hints at something one step further: a virtual reality-based “Retina Experience” with 16K resolution operating at 120 frames per second.  

The presentation also highlights the company’s plans to develop technology that can deliver health care remotely, both through e-health services and remote surgery. Huawei just recently began showcasing its work on the file. In January, it announced that a surgeon had conducted the world’s first remote operation using 5G and the company’s technology, in which a surgeon removed a lab animal’s liver by controlling a robotic arm nearly 50 kilometres away.

The presentation additionally notes the importance of 5G for smart-grid technology. It’s another area in which the government has been investing heavily; in January 2018, Natural Resources Canada earmarked $100 million through its Smart Grid Program.

The 2017 document also outlines the company’s priorities in Europe, Japan, China and the U.S. In Europe, Huawei was focusing on autonomous cars, smart factories and e-health; in Japan, it was focusing on augmented and virtual reality, as well as service robots and home applications; in China, drones and service robotics were its priority; and in the U.S., it was developing e-health and video technology.

When asked if Huawei’s regional priorities have shifted in the past two years Pereira said: “We are the world leader on 5G and we operate in more than 170 countries around the world.”

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Throughout the presentation, Huawei emphasizes collaboration between telecommunications companies, technology companies and research institutions. It mentions industry partner Telus, as well as its Ottawa-based research centre, where the company said it was developing 5G radio and network architecture.

In Canada, the Big Three telecoms—Rogers, Bell and Telus—currently do business with Huawei. Bell and Telus both allow Huawei devices to use their networks and are working with the company to test 5G. Rogers sells Huawei smartphones and maintains the Chinese company as its sponsor for Hockey Night in Canada on its Sportsnet, Omni and Citytv channels. However, the telecom’s vice-chair, Philip Lind, recently cautioned against allowing Huawei in Canada’s 5G networks; Rogers is using Ericsson’s technology for its 5G rollout.

Huawei has spent the last couple years courting countries to sign agreements to allow the tech company to build their 5G networks that can enable the technologies detailed in its 2017 presentation to ISED. In June, it said it had obtained 46 commercial 5G contracts in 30 countries around the world to date, and deployed more than 100,000 5G base stations—or cell towers—to be used to relay communications between mobile devices and 5G networks.

The company is still being considered to build Canada’s high-speed wireless infrastructure. The federal government, however, is currently conducting a security review of Huawei’s 5G technology, the results of which are expected before the federal election in October.