Druid casts a spell on the global future of 5G

They call themselves druids, but the engineers at Bray-based Druid Software are working their magic on how 5G will become a business reality across the world. John Kennedy talks to Druid founder Liam Kenny.

Every time there’s a new ‘G’ the mobile device and telco industry work themselves into a marketing frenzy. Like whirling dervishes, they espouse the many possibilities across billboards, TV ads, social media and the press. We’ve seen it with 3G, 4G and now 5G. And, every time, the reality is somewhat different. The tech is usually a slow burner but eventually become indispensable.

Just this week a report from Huawei and Amárach Research claimed that 80pc of Irish consumers believe it is extremely important for Irish society that there is widespread 5G coverage by 2025. The same report warns Ireland could face an economic loss of €12.6bn by 2030 if it fails to invest in 5G.

“We spent several years building products for other companies, and we reinvested our profits into the dream of building our own platform”

Mobile operators Vodafone, Three and Eir are already up and running with 5G networks in some Irish cities and towns. But perhaps due to the Covid-19 economic shock or conspiracy theories around 5G, mobile operators have still failed to make a convincing argument for consumers and businesses to sign up for 5G plans. There are only a handful of expensive 5G smartphones in the market and for most people today 4G is perfectly adequate. No one has yet adequately or eloquently summed up why 5G matters today.

But we know 5G is the future, we know it is the intrinsic link for advancements like internet of things, factories that run themselves and self-driving cars, robotic surgery, you name it. So, who is really driving 5G.

The druids working the magic of 5G

Well, look no further than the seaside town of Bray, Co Wicklow, and a bunch of engineers led by Liam Kenny, managing director of Druid Software. They call themselves druids, but they are weaving their digital magic and already making 5G a practical reality in a number of real-world scenarios.

“One of the primary drivers for the adoption of 5G today really is private networks that businesses can us”

Druid Software develops 4G and 5G cellular solutions for businesses based on its Raemis technology, spanning a myriad of applications in enterprise, mobile edge computing, internet of things and public safety. A recent example is the deployment of wireless technology on shipping giant Seaboard’s cargo ships in collaboration with Wireless Maritime Systems. In another recent project its technology was used to enable edge computing on Amazon Web Services (AWS) Snowcone devices in the US using 3.5Ghz CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Spectrum).

The company was founded by Kenny in 2001. “We started off as a services company that developed software for companies that were developing technology for other companies. I brought in some of the guys that I would have worked with over the years and the company started off organically. We spent several years building products for other companies, and we reinvested our profits into the dream of building our own platform.”

Without getting too caught up in the technical wizardry of how radio works, Druid’s focus is on the software that goes into the hardware that goes into the core network. “We are the gateway between the radios and the internet.”

Embarking on the product journey around 2009 Druid, Kenny explains, was inspired by the early promise of short-range technologies that we all take for granted today like Wi-Fi and they decided to harnesses that to make it more ubiquitous over cellular networks. Basically, allowing businesses and consumers to enjoy Wi-Fi quality on a wider scale, what 3G originally promised but took years to deliver.

“At the time cellular companies were spending tens of millions on these gigantic core networks that could only be used by 10 people at a time to make it even do something. So we set about harnessing the power of cellular technology and put it into the hands of a business or an enterprise.

“Public safety was one of the first areas we decided to target. We then started looking at manufacturing and how the internet of things could lead to automated factories. And that led to automated ports that could work by themselves. This also meant looking at narrowband waves for sending data like temperature reads from sensors in shipping containers.

“All of this led us to focus on technologies that could work across offices, hospitals, universities, large business campuses and more.

“The other aspect of our strategy was to help companies use cellular technology to solve business problems.”

After cloud comes edge computing

This brings us to a new epoch in technology as we move from cloud computing to a new field called edge computing. Think of this as taking the power of data centres and bringing it closer to the user through transmitters on billboards, lampposts and rooftops.

“We are now contemplating sub-millisecond latencies on a 5G network and that is what is enabling new use cases such as industrial automation, robots, cars that drive themselves and talk to each other”

If you think of Druid as being the magical link between the power of the internet and the radio waves or spectrum in the air around us, then the company is right in the centre of this edge computing revolution which will be powered by 5G.

“We are pure software, but we have radio knowledge like no one else because we have to engineer how the packets of data are transmitted through radio signals.

“In the tech industry, the term edge computing is generally about offloading data closer to the edge of the network and the edge of the networks is where the radios are.”

But it needs to be smarter than that. “For example, if you have a radio coverage system in a hospital you need to ensure that the data that is being offloaded to devices from radio transmitters is private and secure. You also need to think of it from a latency and speed perspective, if you are talking about equipment like robots and you’re talking about speeds of five milliseconds or less, which you can’t do over a public wireless network.

“What Druid does is make it possible to have a fully distributed edge core that can deliver a resilient, autonomous service, regardless of what’s happening outside. This will prove critical for hospitals, ports, factories and more. This is crucial because if the service drops, you start losing money, or worse, lives. So that’s where we are, this edge core model is the next ‘last mile’.”

While the mobile telecoms industry clucks and fusses over 5G marketing and PR plans, companies like Druid are already at the coalface of applying this technology. The company’s systems are already in use in Europe and the US.

“One of the primary drivers for the adoption of 5G today really is private networks that businesses can use. 5G has sparked a renewed interest in this area.”

While the onset of Covid-19 saw the cancellation of major industry pow-wows such as Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the reality of ensuring most of the world’s office workers could continue to function has been a feather in the cap of the tech, media and telecoms sector worldwide.

Despite the cancellation of Mobile World Congress – a pivotal sales event for tech firms like Druid – Kenny says the company had done a significant amount of legwork beforehand that has served it well. “Generally, it caused a slowdown in the industry but we would have been testing with 5G networks in Europe and the US throughout the summer. And while you are limited by the lockdown, we found new ways to approach work, so it didn’t impact our business as much.”

When most people think about the 5G future, they think about speeds. And that’s important. On today’s 4G networks people can enjoy up to 150Mbps on average. With 5G it could be 1000Mbps and more in some cases.

But for Kenny and his druids, the magic word is ‘latency’ – the lag between a user’s action and the network’s speed of response. If you are going to be relying on 5G to enable future applications like robotic surgery or self-driving cars, there can be no lag.

According to Kenny 4G has a typical latency of 25 to 30 milliseconds for a packet to travel by radio to a server.

“But with 5G that’s been totally redefined. We are now contemplating sub-millisecond latencies on a 5G network and that is what is enabling new use cases such as industrial automation, robots, cars that drive themselves and talk to each other. Crucially we are in the business of developing resilient services of the future. For us, 5G is a business centred around private networks.”

Looking to the future, Kenny and his 45 druids are planning to grow the business. “Private networks are going to be the key growth area for 5G.

“2021 is going to be a big growth year for our part of the 5G revolution and we intend to grow with it.”

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 9 December 2020