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10 5G projects providing a vision for the future

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The Internet of Things (IoT) – and what it will enable – has been a discussion point for well over a decade, but the speed, low latency and reliability of 5G promise to bring the concept to life. Network slicing will allow a wide range of product types, with distinct reliability and throughput requirements, to be run out of the same architecture, and edge computing will allow nodes to communicate directly with one another, bypassing the network’s core and enhancing speed and reliability. These characteristics underpin some the most interesting projects currently making use of 5G, and have made a plethora of 5G use cases possible. Here are ten of the best.   


1. Untethered industrial robots

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Robots are already widely used in factories, particularly in the automotive industry. However, 5G’s speed and low latency will ‘untether’ them, meaning they are physically free. Ericsson is currently collaborating with robot manufacturer Comau to develop fully automated untethered robots for use in an industrial setting. These robots will move in response to input from sensors rather than direct human control. Ultimately, they will make use of artificial intelligence and be multipurpose and intelligent enough to adapt, communicate and interact with each other. They will also be able to ‘personalise’ products, leading to more flexible production lines. The robots will work from a 3D image of a customised product (called a digital shadow), allowing them to optimise the manufacturing process by detecting quality issues and making continuous improvements.   


2. Robots on farms 

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Untethered robots will be able to wander through fields determining, via interaction with sensors, which crops need more fertilizer or water, or which are suffering from disease. They might also be able to sift through images of fruit or vegetables using image processing software to determine whether produce is saleable or damaged. A company called FFRobotics has developed a ‘fresh fruit harvester’ that does exactly this. The company’s website states that these robots pick fruit ten times faster than a human harvester.  


3. Robots in surgery 

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Untethered robots would help medical staff lift patients, or move beds and other equipment around the hospital, but perhaps more interestingly, they will also help with surgery. Surgeons located in a hospital will be able to conduct operations remotely. Telecoms company Ericsson is currently working with King’s College, London to develop haptic gloves enabling surgeons to do this. These gloves will be connected to a robotic intermediary located with the patient (perhaps inside a drone). The surgeon would view the operation via a virtual reality (VR) headset, as well as feel pressure transmitted from the robot to the gloves using vibrating motors. The technology relies on ‘edge computing’ systems (computation handled and stored locally) within the surgical device and the robot at either end of the 5G stream.  


4.  Virtual patient operations (telesurgery) 

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VR is one of several technologies that lends itself to medicine in interesting ways. Earlier this year, virtual reality software specialist, EchoPixel, launched a 3D viewer for use in diagnostics and surgical planning. This software converts 2D medical imaging data such as MRI and CT scans into VR images that float above an ordinary desktop. Doctors will be able to manipulate and dissect body parts from within the image.  In time, haptic technology is likely to be used to make the different parts of the clone – skin, bone and tendon - feel differently to the surgeon, thereby guiding him in his work.  


5. VR and palliative care 

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The low latency afforded by 5G provides far more potential for artificial and virtual reality applications than any previous iteration of the mobile network. AT&T and Vitas Healthcare are working together to combine on a VR product that aims to reduce anxiety and pain for the chronically ill. Patients will wear headsets and interact with scenes that aim to improve their mental health, this might include a walk through their home town or a visit to Machu Picchu in Peru.  


6. AI in diagnosis 

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already being used for diagnosis of ailments. For example, in 2017 Stanford computer scientists used a computer vision tool to successfully diagnose early instances of skin cancer. The computers are provided with many thousands of images as well as mathematical functions and algorithms allowing them to extract meaningful patterns. 5G will increase take up of this technology, since it allows for real time rapid learning and calculations when assessing a patient’s symptoms. The government’s ‘industrial strategy’, has seen it open five new AI research centres in the UK (Leeds, Oxford, Coventry, Glasgow and London) focused on image analysis.  


7. Self-driving vehicles 

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Ultimately, self-driving cars are another form of robot, and more than 40 manufacturers are working on robocars. Google’s is particularly interesting. It features a rotating roof top camera containing an array of 64 laser beams with a 200m range, these create images of hazards and other cars. A camera on the windscreen helps it see nearer-range obstacles such as pedestrians. Radars on the front and rear bumpers mean it is able to see cars in front and behind, and it will maintain a distance of 2-4 seconds at all times. An aerial at the rear receives information about the location of the car from GPS satellites. Mapping technology analysing road services, markers, signs and more, is recorded using an ordinary car and fed into the self-driving vehicle’s software. It also recognises signals and gestures, such as those used by cyclists for example. It will interpret these and slow down accordingly.  


8. Drones

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Drones are already ubiquitous, but they will come into their own once they are 5G enabled. Although the regulation around air traffic safety is still to be agreed upon, sophisticated autonomous drones, designed for industrial, government and enterprise use, are already in production by manufacturers such as Percepto. These in-the-box-solutions can be programmed to carry out remote surgery, precision agriculture, defence activities, disaster recovery (following forest fires or other natural disasters), and inspection of difficult to reach infrastructure such as oil rigs, electrical systems or derelict buildings. They are likely to be rented ‘as a service’ by different sectors. 


9. AR smart glasses and safety 

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Augmented reality (AR) smart glasses will overlay the real world with useful information. Developers in this field argue that they make the entire world a desktop. There are many interesting examples of glasses of this sort, particularly those for use in an industrial setting. The ODG R-7 are AR smart glasses fitted with stereoscopic displays of 720p each, these are untethered and come with a variety of sensors. Off-site experts in an industrial setting will be able to see what an on-site person is seeing and AI can be used to retrieve step by step instructions around how to fix faults. One can easily see how this might be used by trainee mechanics or someone with a broken boiler in contact with a remote engineer. Miners or people working in dangerous environments might be warned of potential gas leaks by sensors communicating with their glasses. In a standard business context, these glasses will provide useful face recognition and travel guidance.  


10. 5G on the underground

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The Department for Media Culture and Sport is currently collaborating with various Korean institutions on a project called 5G RailNext to develop 5G infotainment services for public transport. The project will initially test the live deployment of infotainment mobile services using AR and mixed-reality content. The beta test will take place in a subway environment in Seoul and deliver travel information, video streaming and gaming through wearable devices such as headsets.  


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Nicola Brittain is a freelance journalist with expertise in technology, telecoms, media and finance. She worked as news and analysis editor at Computing Magazine, and more recently has freelanced for Diginomica, Investment Week and Portfolio Adviser. She is currently writing a novel.