5G, the fifth generation of wireless communication, promises to transform the art of the possible when it comes to robotics. Known by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – the global regulator – as IMT-2020, the standard seeks to push boundaries. It aims to transform the way we build cellular networks, the kit we connect to them, their operational frequencies and the purposes they serve.
Robotics will be a big beneficiary, with wireless control of highly sophisticated mobile machines becoming feasible – as well as the possibility for robots to take advantage of the enormous compute power and storage available in the cloud, without being tethered by physical wires. The vision is that we’ll be able to accurately control future robots in near-real-time, from virtually anywhere in the world.
5G, therefore, promises to transform whole industries, and will enable such a massive leap forward in terms of robotic capability that we’ll need to redefine what a ‘robot’ actually is. Fully autonomous vehicles, for example, will be robots that use inputs from a large number of sensors to make decisions, with the goal being that these choices are made more quickly and more accurately than a human could achieve. Unmanned vehicles are another example.
New robotic possibilities
Most modern manufacturing facilities already make extensive use of robots, notably the car industry. The medical sector is another where the use of robotics is growing, and is a great example of how combining robotics with 5G communications has the potential to change lives.
Aside from using 5G-enabled robots to transport equipment and other things around hospitals, we could see robots regularly performing operations, controlled by a surgeon in a completely different location – known as ‘telesurgery’.
Telesurgery isn’t the stuff of sci-fi: it’s already a reality. In 2001, Jacques Marescaux remotely removed a patient’s gall bladder, demonstrating the feasibility of telesurgery over very long distances (in this case, from New York to Strasbourg). Thanks to the capabilities of 5G communications, this type of procedure could become common practice.
Taken a step further, using the power of the cloud and technologies such as virtual reality, remote surgeons could have near-real-time access to a virtual 3D model of their patient. This would enable the surgeon to perform the operation on the virtual model, with one or more robots carrying out the actual procedure on the patient somewhere else in the world.
While we’re at least a decade away from full telesurgery, we’re likely to see it advance incrementally as 5G and robotics technologies mature.
What’s holding robotics back?
The robots needed for this type of sophisticated use case – and the surrounding ecosystem that will make it all possible – is still relatively new technology. But there’s something else holding back these sorts of application. Current 4G networks don’t enable the near-instantaneous response times required. To realize the potential of robotics, latency (the time between sending a command and receiving confirmation of error-free execution) needs to be slashed to unprecedented levels.
Round-trip latency in a 4G LTE cellular network is typically around 50 ms. The robotics application touched on above require this to be less than 1 ms. The 5G standard recognizes this, but achieving it is a major technical challenge.
Here’s why: the speed of light and radio waves in a vacuum is 299,792,458 m/s. This comes down to around 90 km/s in the Earth’s atmosphere (as it isn’t a vacuum). Communication links, such as optical fibers, and the various electronic connections through which the signal needs to pass, bring this speed down further.
To achieve latency of less than 1 ms, 5G seeks to minimize the physical distance between two points in a network. This will mean massively growing the global cloud data center footprint (to reduce the distance data needs to travel by having data centers closer to the source of the data). Alongside 1 Gb/s+ data rates and the use of much higher cellular frequencies than those we use today, this will help deliver latencies of less than 1 ms over distances between 1 and 100 km.
While these higher cellular frequencies don’t see much use today, there are plenty of components available for designers to create millimeter-wavelength radio transceivers. Analog Devices’ HMC341 Low-Noise RF Amplifier is one example, covering 24 to 30 GHz.
We also need microwave coaxial cabling with very precise tolerances between their different elements. Molex, for example, makes a range of suitable cables and connectors, including its SMA types, designed for this sort of use and able to operate in 5G’s high frequency ranges.
Transforming our factories
The factory of the future will see increasing numbers of robots operating alongside a human workforce. This is expected to result in significantly higher production throughput, greater product quality and improved safety.
To realize these benefits, sub-1ms latencies will be required, meaning future industry is another area that will rely heavily on 5G communications and the cloud. By enabling robots to quickly exchange enormous volumes of data with the factory’s other control systems and human workforce, the whole ‘shop floor’ experience will be transformed. 5G-enabled wearables, augmented reality and other related technologies will also play their part.
With multiple robots operating close together and communicating wirelessly, interference could become an issue. Designers will need to control low-frequency interference carefully, using large numbers of inductors (chokes) and filters. KEMET NEC-Tokin offers both.
To keep latency to a minimum, edge computing will also be important. This minimizes the distances data needs to be sent, by carrying out key processing at the ‘edge’ of the network, closer to the data source than a cloud data center.
Lastly, even though robots won’t be physically wired up to other equipment, the increased levels of sophistication mean more internal cabling and connectors than ever will be needed. And given they could be working in harsh conditions; these components will need to be highly durable, capable of delivering long working life spans. Molex’s Brad cordsets for M12- and M8-type devices are an ideal option, given their resistance to heat, chemicals and other hostile conditions.
Robots in the field – literally
Using 5G communications and global navigation and satellite systems will untether future robots and enable them to do things they can’t at present. Take the example of agriculture. Robots could improve farming operations by moving through a field of crops to monitor growing conditions. They could send near-real-time video imagery and other information to a central control system, and then perform actions such as pruning, spraying or harvesting crops. FFRobotics’ Robotic Fruit Harvester, for example, uses robotic controls and image-processing algorithms to identify fruit that is ready to harvest and of sufficient quality to offer for sale.
Elsewhere, High-throughput Plant Phenotyping (HTPP) technology blends robots, sensors and genetics in a way that could enable development of new crop varieties with better nutrient content levels and/or greater tolerance of different environmental conditions. Robots would measure a variety of characteristics and transmit the data to remote scientists.
Development is also underway on robots that seek to streamline other areas of farming, including seed planting. With a continually growing global population, robots could play an important role in creating and maintaining a sustainable supply of food.
Exciting times ahead for robotics
5G isn’t going to revolutionize robotics overnight: many of the technologies required to deliver the applications mentioned in this blog remain in their infancy and require continued innovation to realize their full potential. But they’re developing fast.
Moreover, 5G heralds a new era of communications that will, for the first time, enable some truly pioneering use cases in robotics. To make these happen, and enable large numbers of robots to operate in close proximity without interfering with one another, we’ll need to continue to push the boundaries of where and how the technology can be used. And most importantly, latency needs to be reduced to a point where it is effectively insignificant.
There are some truly exciting and challenging times ahead for everyone involved in robotics.
By Rudy Ramos
Project Manager for the Technical Content Marketing Team, Mouser Electronics
Rudy Ramos holds an MBA from Keller Graduate School of Management. He has over 30 years of professional, technical and managerial experience managing complex, time critical projects and programs in various industries including semiconductor, marketing, manufacturing, and military. Previously, Ramos worked for National Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, and his entrepreneur silk screening business.