It has the potential to impact almost every sector, but 5G is particularly important to industries where data is a critical resource
1. Kickstarting IoT’s potential
An area with a lot to gain from 5G is the internet of things (IoT), networks of sensors and software that can give almost anything the ability to send and receive data. Indeed, IoT technology is becoming so widespread that any benefits for IoT translate into pluses for practically every other industry.
There are obvious applications in the consumer IoT device sector. Practically speaking, smart devices tapping into 5G infrastructure will be more appealing to the consumer because they can still turn the heating on, for example, even if the wifi has crashed. The increased reliability and speed of smart home gadgets will be particularly important in the case of security devices like cameras and locks. You want as fast a response as possible when a sensor in your home has detected an intruder or a fire.
There will be possibilities for IoT in the entertainment sector as 5G’s ability to transfer massive amounts of data with such low latency will enable ultra-immersive augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) and gaming experiences. As all the actual processing power can sit at a distance without any detectable lag, uncomfortably bulk headsets will be a thing of the past.
IoT can also make use of 5G’s networking slicing technology; once installed, 5G hardware can operate multiple virtual networks on the same equipment. This means that a distinct network could be used for security-focused IoT devices so their uptime can be prioritised over less-essential services.
Steve Szabo, vice president of IoT at Verizon Business, says: “The potential of 5G to transform business operations is immense, enabling use-cases that don’t exist today. As an example, a 5G network will potentially be able to support more than two million connected sensors per square mile.”
In terms of the possibilities 5G will allow, he points to near real-time simulations, assessment, prediction via artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning, and remediation as just a few of the applications that an internet of things with low-latency transmission will enable in all sorts of sectors, from smart homes to robotics to autonomous vehicles.
2. Smarter vehicles in smarter cities
A Gartner report last year predicted that by 2023 more than half of installed IoT devices will be found in connected vehicles, and 5G is going to be a key part of the story of how this is going to enable data and computation to transform the automotive sector.
Over the last few years, the Cellular V2X (C-V2X) communications standard has been developed for transferring data between a vehicle, other vehicles on the road, nearby infrastructure and devices, and the wider internet. While C-V2X can operate over 4G networks, 5G is vastly more preferable due to the volume of data that can be collected, potentially many terabytes an hour. The more data that can be gathered by the AI software that powers autonomous driving systems, the better the decisions they will be able to make and the closer the much-vaunted fully autonomous vehicle becomes.
Even before we reach that point, there are plenty of semi-autonomous operations that are made easier by a car that can communicate and can be communicated with, such as parking, braking or changing lanes. Being able to gather real-time data from surrounding cars and a wide range of nearby information sources via a low latency 5G connection will both make it easier to avoid human error and increase the complexity of tasks that can be handed over to autonomous systems entirely.
It will also have an impact on commercial automotive operations. An IoT-enabled fleet of trucks can feedback all kinds of data about their routes and performance, enabling operators to optimise operations, not to mention all the potential benefits of fully fledged autonomous driving.
There is one thing that might stop this technology from becoming an integral part of driving: infrastructure. Communications regulator Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2019 report estimated that only 62 per cent of motorways (and only 46 per cent of B roads in the UK even had 4G coverage from all operators. Without massive improvement as we move into the 5G era, it’s hard to see how any new safety features can be as taken for granted as they would need to be.
But developments in the automotive industry could be a spur to improving connectivity. As cities become connected, with sensors and cameras monitoring everything from water pipes to traffic lights, increasingly smarter cars will be able to tap into all these systems for live feedback. This will enable them to make decisions on the fly, leading to safer and more efficient journeys.
3. Manufacturing in the era of Industry 4.0
Manufacturing is another sector that will be revolutionised by 5G. At the most basic level, wired networks connecting machinery can run into the hundreds of dollars per metre of cable, so a wireless network that provides similar reliability and latency has obvious cost benefits, even after factoring in retrofitting older equipment with wireless connectivity.
The lower latency of 5G connections opens up a whole range of possibilities. Since control units can be trivially placed anywhere on, or even off, the floor in relation to machinery, fewer of them may be needed and production lines can become more cost efficient. Further efficiencies might be identified by the application of big data and analytics through 5G-enabled equipment.
There are also implications for the safety of automated elements of manufacturing systems, as improved communication speed can help avoid accidents as different systems can update each other near-instantaneously, with latency as low as 1 millisecond, compared to 25ms with 4G connections, in case of an emergency.
In addition, there are remote control applications for this technology, like a joystick control connected to a robotic arm via a prototype version of 5G as demonstrated by Ericsson in 2016. The low latency enables the person holding the joystick to receive almost instantaneous physical feedback on what the arm is doing, enabling far greater precision in movement.
The capability to rapidly transfer large amounts of data can work in tandem with the use of AI in manufacturing. When using machine vision to detect flaws in components, the faster you can get the data from the sensors to the machine actually running the algorithm that looks for defects, the more efficient your process will be.
The potential improvements to AR/VR interfaces that 5G unlocks can also be applied to manufacturing. AR is already being used in factories to speed up troubleshooting processes where instead of consulting documentation to diagnose a problem, the relevant information can be superimposed over the actual components you’re looking at.
Whether it’s by increasing the ability and speed of automated systems to run without human intervention or by making human intervention more efficient, manufacturers that embrace the ability of 5G to get the right data to the right place at the right time will rapidly gain an edge on their competitors.
Fifth generation mobile networking is set to transform several industries, none more so than manufacturing. According to a study by Ericsson, the 5G business potential for the sector in 2026 is some $113 billion. But how exactly will the new network ignite the fourth industrial revolution?
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