Why Robots Will Be a Proving Ground for 5G

Futuristic factories are harnessing 5G technology to enable the next generation of industrial automation.

By Chase Guttman

By Chase Guttman February 23, 2021

The hyping of 5G and automation started as a rumble years ago but now the buzz has reached fever pitch. The promises of lightning-fast speeds and ultra-low latency led to anticipation have expectations for business and life-changing technological advancements powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Now that 5G is here – Apple debuted its first 5G-capable devices in 2020 – the world still seems to be waiting for transformation with bated breath.

Looking beyond smartphone makers and wireless providers reveals that manufacturers are making the big bets on 5G’s potential.

5G Smart Factories

In fact, 5G already is enabling a truly automated factory floor by freeing robots to maneuver through warehouses and do their jobs untethered. And it’s just getting started.

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As wireless networks and artificial intelligence become even more powerful in the years ahead, so will the promise of automation, suggests the Capgemini Research Institute. They estimate that 5G-powered “smart factories” will generate between $1.5 trillion and $2.2 trillion for the global economy by 2023.

“The first robotic 5G applications will be ones that only need small, defined areas, such as a factory, to operate,” said Chris Quick, founder and CEO of RealBotics Inc., which develops remote-control software for robots.

Their supersonic speed – up to 20 times faster than 4G wireless networks – means 5G networks can transfer large swaths of data at quicker rates and with greater reliability, according to Quick.

“5G networks are able to provide robotic equipment and devices with a higher-bandwidth, lower-latency mobile connection to the internet, to other connected devices and to cloud infrastructure,” he said.

With wireless connections as powerful as that, robots no longer have to be plugged into computers for updates. Instead, they can roam independently through factories and get completely reconfigured over the 5G airwaves. 

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Smart factories that combine 5G with the Internet of Things, edge computing and artificial intelligence eventually will be able to turn on a dime in order to deliver customized products quickly and affordably in response to real-time demand signals, according to CNBC.

This newfound agility has potential benefits for manufacturers, consumers and factory workers. While automation may lessen congestion on the factory floor – a big plus in the age of COVID-19 – Oxford Economics found that robots could displace as many as 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030.

Brand Buy-in

Still, the potential benefits are undeniable, which is why major brands like BMW, DHL, Lufthansa and Volkswagen are studying 5G manufacturing use cases for possible integration into future factories and warehouses. At least one big brand, Bosch Rexroth, already has a modular production line connected to 5G complete with wheeled robots and robotic arms, WIRED magazine reported in 2020.

German automaker Audi is also touting the wonders of 5G. The company’s website states: “5G offers a mobile communications spectrum that is available exclusively for industrial use, and it provides the possibility to prioritize various applications within the network. With 5G, the focus is placed – for the first time – on availability and low latency, which is necessary for production in a smart factory. The industrial Internet of Things needs more: It needs 5G.”

When reliability is mission-critical, manufacturers can build private 5G networks that are encrypted for added security and internally monitored for peace of mind. Companies like Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology of Sweden and Konecranes, a Finnish manufacturer that produces heavy machinery, are creating their own private, industry-only networks. Hospitals might also be interested in establishing private 5G networks to aggregate data from various machines, monitor patients and possibly conduct robotic surgeries remotely.

Unleashing the Cloud

The pace of 5G will allow more factory robots to tap into the cloud for greater computing power. With access to external computers, robots no longer need to house massive CPUs onboard, which dramatically alters engineers’ design constraints.

“Robotic equipment can utilize remote processing power, which lowers the cost of the robotic system while improving its runtime due to using less power for local computation,” Quick said.

This will soon enable robots to transmit data to the cloud for computations, and to receive answers back quicker than ever.

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“The cloud allows you to access a virtually infinite amount of computational power. Now you can do a lot more complicated things,” said Ludovic Righetti, a robotics professor and researcher at New York University. 

“Let’s say you use machine learning to help a robot do a task and detect certain objects. You can train that machine faster and much more efficiently because of access to lots of external CPUs on the cloud.”

Cloud robotics for 5G factory automation also can be deployed to predict and prevent costly equipment malfunctions, and to remove humans from dangerous industrial tasks.

“5G networks will accelerate automation by helping lower the cost of mobile robotic equipment and by improving the capability of systems through machine learning and artificial intelligence,” Quick said.

In addition to increasing robotic capabilities, a 5G manufacturing industry can help automate everything from packing to product handling and assembly.

“With ‘smart manufacturing,’ the majority of production processes could be remotely controlled and monitored in the cloud, minimizing the need for plant infrastructure and dramatically reducing costs,” telecommunications company Ericsson explains on its website.

That makes 5G appealing to a lot of companies.

“So many people in robotics think that 5G is a huge deal for us, but I can tell you that my colleagues are already working on the next generation of wireless,” Righetti reported. “While 5G increased capabilities quite a lot, the future is the sixth, seventh or eighth generation, which is really exciting because we haven’t hit the limit yet of what we can do.”

What those later generations of wireless will mean for future factories is anyone’s guess. If 5G factories are “smart,” however, it’s safe to say that their 8G offspring will be downright genius.

Chase Guttman is a technology writer specializing in drones. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, drone cinematographer, author, lecturer and instructor. His book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, was one of the first written on the topic and received critical acclaim. Find him at chaseguttman.com or @chaseguttman.

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