Connecting the bots – the need for 5G in robotics
When you consider what powers a robot you think of the electrical energy needed to make it work. But robots also require huge amounts of data to complete even the most basic of functions.
In the iconic film Terminator, the cyborg assassin was infamously powered by the Skynet neural network – a concept developed years before the internet became a staple of every household.
Like their autonomous vehicle cousins, robots are trained via huge datasets and machine learning and the data needs to be fully secured during transit. This can either be done through on-board processing – via the robot itself, a computer, or a local network; or off-board processing – using connectivity.
According to Guilherme Pizzato, global G2G business development director at telco vendor Nokia, connectivity is essential in today’s industrial robots.
“It allows devices from field, control, supervisory, operational and control enterprise network layers to communicate.”
As the industrial robots market is forecast to more than double in the next six years ($16.78 billion in 2022 to $35.68bn by 2029), it’s important businesses focus not only on the hardware – the robot itself – but also the connectivity needed to make it sing.
Unplugging the cables
Pizzato claimed that many robots today are still connected via a physical cable for the main reason that requirements related to reliability, security and performance were, until recently, not fulfilled by existing wireless networks
That was before the introduction of industrial 5G.
According to the director, a 5G wireless network allows enterprises to increase the flexibility, efficiency, security and reliability of robots during their operations.
“For example, the introduction of flexible production lines, wider adoption of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), etc.” In simple terms, it allows for better connectivity.
5G also makes it possible to connect devices in locations that didn’t have network coverage before, and it ensures ultra-Low latency which means the time taken to send an instruction to a robot and get a response takes milliseconds, otherwise it could squeeze the object or something worse.
Gigabit speed is also increased which is crucial when sending information to the robot which then passes information itself to the network itself.
For example, a camera on a drone that is operated by a human remotely needs high-definition video and the operator may need feeds from multiple cameras. This requires upload speeds which can be as high and in some cases higher than download speeds.
Private 5G vs Public 5G
According to Singapore telco Singtel, both public and private 5G networks will give you high speed and very low latency.
The former is built, deployed, managed, and maintained by a network provider – and can be used by anyone with credentials to connect to the network, whether they are on a mobile phone or using an IoT device. You only need to connect to it, just like the way you connect to Wi-Fi.
A private 5G network on the other hand uses 5G technologies to create a dedicated network with combined connectivity, optimised services and a secure means of communication within an area. Unlike public 5G, it is only open to those allowed to access it, and thisgives greater control over where to deploy it and how to use and manage it.
But which offers the best connectivity for robots? A big question with a simple answer, according to Pizzato.
“A private 5G network can be designed and optimised for specific operational technology (OT) applications, where the owner of the network has full control of the parameters and configuration,” he said.
It also has dedicated spectrum – guaranteeing bandwidth at any time of day – which means it’s less prone to network bottlenecks or external occurrences that can plague a public network. And in terms of cyber security – a concern for almost any enterprise – the data within the private network doesn’t leave the campus or local premises.
On the flip side, a public network allows for roaming, which means the robot keeps connected to the network even if moving to a location outside local premises, BT’s Andrew Quinton, senior manager at its Division X unit, said that the high level of connectivity needed for robots to function isn’t guaranteed.
“If you’re in an industrial environment surrounded by metal, whilst you might have a 5G public signal you should be using a private network for that dedicated connectivity and high level of security.”
But migrating to a 5G network isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s not just about connectivity. “It’s about the use cases, the whole infrastructure, the systems, the data they’re [enterprises] going to collect. It’s not just about connecting laptops up,” said Quinton. And it’s about having the right people with a range of skills to make this migration work.
One thing that is for certain, according to both Pizzato and Quinton, is that Wi-Fi networks are a no go.
“When a robot’s moving from one access point to another, that handover between Wi-Fi at hotspots is nowhere near as reliable as it is with cellular and 5G,” said Division X’s senior manager.
5G in action
In 2021 Nokia partnered with UTS Tech Lab to create a private 5G network for industrial research. They wanted to explore the possibility of marrying 5G with robots to create cobots – a robot that’s designed to interact directly with humans, or in a shared space..
The network leveraged 5G connectivity to offload sensory data from the cobot into a platform operating on the network edge, where numbers could be crunched more effectivively.
The benefits of offloading the processor from the cobot meant money saved, a reduction in the power that it consumed, and by moving the compute to the cloud they were able to share the resource across thousands of cobots leading to energy savings across the fleet.
According to Pizzato, features such as high throughput and low latency are key for cobots, especially those needed to work alongside humans. Sensory data needs to be crunched quickly which then needs to be sent back to the robots in a short enough amount of time that it can react to the humans around it.
“We can’t afford to have large delays between when a human does something in an environment and a robot’s response to that,” UTS said in a statement.
Cobots are now being used in UTS’ algae lab to help run the algae production facilities. And they can also be delivered across a number of industries such as drones, driverless cars, and augmented reality headsets for blind people.
In Agriculture, last year BT delivered a robotics platform and management system as part of the Innovate UK-funded ‘Robot Highways’ project.
Its focus was the coordination of multiple robots delivering different tasks that had the potential to transform the farming of strawberries.
The robots assisted farmers by carrying out essential, energy intensive, physical farm processes including picking and packing fruit, treating crops to reduce common pests and diseases and distinguishing between ripe and unripe fruit. And it’s powered exclusively by renewable energy.
“We’ve also got a partner and we’re exploring automated vehicles,” said Quinton, “but the robotic element comes in because it’s where you have to connect the actual trailer to the lorries, all the break lines, the connectivity and electronics.
“A robot is essentially connecting those together. We’re expecting to see benefits for some logistic firms in these super-size distribution centres.”
BT is also working with drones in ports for automated surveillance, health and safety and visual inspection.
“We’re looking at remote operation of plants as well. Using 5G and robotic technology to automate some of their plant and equipment to take people out of potentially dangerous environments and allowing them to do their jobs from a safe area. It’s a very positive health and safety impact.”
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