A startup that aspires to make it easier to be a firefighter says 5G may be the way to do the impossible. All it takes is the imagination to try it.

Martin Shi is the co-founder of Longan Vision, a Hamilton-based company that is developing an AR-like, helmet-mounted device for firefighters that would allow them real-time, hands-free communication and data gathering – permitting them to see the unseen through the smoke and flames of an active fire scene.

The Fusion Vision System (FVS) was rolled out last year, using the existing LTE communication networks, to feed information from firefighters to their commanders trying to manage their crews in dynamic fire scenes.

Shi, whose 12-person company is based in The Forge in McMaster’s Innovation Park, heard about the 5G test bed now being hosted at Communitech’s Waterloo-based Data Hub. The test bed falls under the auspices of ENCQOR, the Evolution of Networked Services through a Corridor in Quebec and Ontario for Research and Innovation. ENCQOR offers $50,000 in support to companies that can match that amount and apply with a plan to develop software or hardware using the 5G network expected to roll out in the near future. The intention is to give companies a head start on the many commercial applications that 5G presents.

Shi explained that fire crews currently communicate either by face-to-face contact or by two-way radios. Shi and his team envision a helmet-mounted AR-like communication device that would allow real-time data gathering on everything from the health of the firefighter (heart rate, temperature) to CO2 and heat levels at the scene to the locations of fire crew members or fire victims, feeding that information back to a base station where an incident commander can issue orders based on accurate data from the middle of an inferno.

Using LTE was too slow, said Shi, but the 5G test bed gave his team the opportunity to test the data capture and analysis done in the cloud and streamed back to the base station in real time.

The speed of the 5G network is essential, he said.

“If the communication is good, it can save them a lot of time, and even save lives,” says Shi.

Mauro Rossi, Director of Advanced Technology Platforms for Communitech, says the ENCQOR program is a game-changer, in that it gives small-and-medium sized companies the opportunity to gain access to the kind of infrastructure normally only available to much larger enterprises. Although ENCQOR provides the test bed and the Ontario Centres of Excellence are providing the funding, Communitech is key to recruiting potential candidates for the program, and is publicizing that the test bed is available for any SME, free of charge, that can make a use-case for it. In addition, Communitech offers its suite of support, including tech advisors and a data concierge, to successful ENCQOR applicants. Rossi hopes that “dozens” of companies will be a part of the 5G test bed in the coming year.

Longan Vision, says Rossi, has an impressive start on its product. The kind of data analytics that are envisioned would require a fair bit of local computing power — “But you can’t put a laptop on your helmet,” he says. The FVS strips its hardware down to wearable basics, using the 5G network to upload the data to a base station, or to the mini-cloud servers expected to be installed at many 5G towers to eliminate lag time.

“So now this helmet is much lighter, actually usable by the stakeholders and they can still get that fast speed, they can get that great command and control, and that security of guaranteed communication,” Rossi says.

Shi says the FVS helmets are almost ready. The COVID pandemic has delayed final polishing and live-testing of the system, but he hopes to bring the product to market in 2021.

Shi credits the ENCQOR program – and moving into the 5G space and being exposed to other companies that are exploring that space – with helping build his company. “When we talked to others, we were inspired by their solutions.”

His advice to other companies thinking about 5G? “Try something that you think is impossible and then use 5G. Before, we weren’t thinking of large-scale video streaming and when we look at 5G, we think that it is possible,” Shi said. “Think out of the box, think of the impossible and try to make it possible with 5G.”