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Mobile Communications March 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Ultrareliable Communications

Why is this topic significant?

Improvements in reliability promise to enable use of cellular systems for applications that now depend on wired and dedicated wireless links.

Description

Developers of 5G technologies are working toward a breakthrough that places wireless communications nearly on a par with the reliability of wired communications. The developers aim to provide a successful connection 99.999% of the time. Partly to facilitate communications among emergency workers, the developers aim to enable combinations of cellular links plus direct wireless connections from device to device (D2D).

Developers of 5G technologies have also combined efforts toward ultrareliable communications with efforts toward low-delay communications to strive for ultrareliable low-latency communications (URLLC). Engineers are aiming to keep delays well under 10 milliseconds. They expect to produce a unified URLLC standard that 5G service providers can implement at their option. Car-to-car and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications will be at least a possibility. Smart intersections might even briefly prevent vehicles from proceeding in the event that a distracted driver or daredevil is speeding through a red light. Platoons of cars might use car-to-car communications to coordinate high-speed bumper-to-bumper travel.

Implications

NASA's Opportunity robot explored Mars and relayed data to Earth for 15 years before expiring recently—strong evidence that wireless communications can be highly reliable. But depending on orbital positions, one-way communications between the two planets requires about 4 to 24 minutes. Many other types of communications links require very reliable connections, with varying requirements for worst-case delays ranging from milliseconds to hundreds of milliseconds.

Most notably, providers of cellular services hope to replace today's analog and digital radios for police, fire departments, ambulance drivers, and emergency workers who are employed by utility companies. Public-private partnerships are now in the early stages of a great transition, but whether the transition will succeed, and when, are most uncertain matters. However, communications links for critical infrastructure might also benefit from URLLC. The US Department of Homeland Security has identified 16 elements of critical infrastructure, including nuclear facilities, waterworks, chemical plants, and more.

5G developers seek to evangelize their technology for use in industrial applications. Currently, no wireless technology is ideal for supporting real-time machine control. Alone, the ultra-low-latency capability of 5G might not be enough to persuade industrial engineers to switch from wired to wireless controls. But they might become agreeable to change if low-latency connections can also be ultrareliable D2D connections.

Impacts/Disruptions

The combination of two revolutionary features—ultrareliable and low-latency communications—would in theory enable driverless cars to rely on "brains" that are external to the cars and that would reside in data centers, computers near base stations, or at intermediate positions. Very low delays might even enable people to drive unoccupied cars and trucks by remote control.

However, advanced technologies for driverless vehicles, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications tend not to rely on cellular service for expected safety-critical operations. Driverless cars tend to download maps over cellular channels, but the changes in maps have no immediate effect on brakes, steering, and so on. Yet some carmakers hedge their bets by also working toward URLLC-based transportation solutions. The ultimate fate of such solutions is highly uncertain because even if cellular services do implement URLLC widely, the services have no guarantee that carmakers will use the technology for its intended purpose. Autonomous cars might need to operate when and where no wireless coverage is available.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Mobile-communications services, network equipment, government systems, police departments, fire-protection agencies, paramedical services, utility-repair services, private security services, medical-device manufacturers, motor-vehicle manufacturers, augmented-reality products and services

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Massive Machine-Type Communications

Why is this topic significant?

Developers of 5G technologies aim to connect people in large crowds—and also "crowds" of machines in proximity.

Description

Providers of future 5G services will have the option to implement massive machine-type communications (MMTC)—a suite of technologies whose developers aim to support up to 1 million wireless machines per square kilometer. In theory, a single base station will be able to connect to that many devices within its cell. The target corresponds to an average of one device per square meter.

In many cases, AC power is not available, and battery-maintenance burdens can be a limiting factor. As a result, engineers aim to enable low-power MMTC radios to work for as long as 15 years without charging or replacing a battery. But the effort to concurrently deliver high device density plus low-power operation involves trade-offs. MMTC links can delay communications by seconds or more; smooth handover will not be available; and typical data rates will likely be well under 1 megabit per second—in many cases, well under 100 kilobits per second.

Implications

Service providers and equipment makers envision use of cellular services to connect a great many utility meters, lampposts, traffic signals, commercial and industrial equipment, sensor networks, and low-power personal devices. As currently envisioned, MMTC seems unlikely to be suitable for networks of surveillance cameras. Sensor applications that do tolerate delays and limited data rates include wearable fitness monitors, thermometers for agricultural products in transit, vibration detectors on bridges, and air-quality monitors for various pollutants and particle sizes.

MMTC also seems likely to be unsuited for real-time control of machines. But the technology could still see large-scale adoption in facilities having very many machines, including ports, aircraft factories, and military bases. Growth in use of distributed energy resources might be synergistic with that for MMTC, such as for renewable-generator management systems, storage systems, and self-contained microgrids.

Impacts/Disruptions

Some existing 4G technologies approximate the capabilities of MMTC, and service-provider technology road maps will vary. Some mobile services with existing 4G Internet of Things infrastructure might take evolutionary pathways toward 5G. Other services might leapfrog to 5G MMTC. As with 3G and 4G, services will likely not reach all 5G design targets, but they will still disrupt markets.

Developers' current efforts for MMTC are separate from developments for enhanced mobile broadband (EMB) and for ultrareliable low-latency communications (URLLC). Three sets of 5G work groups—for MMTC, URLLC, and EMB—have finely tuned their schedules to align with current and expected capabilities. But gaps among the three major 5G technology suites seem to point toward what 6G will be like.

Eventually, large arrays of automated machines and robots in proximity (which could require MMTC) might collaborate with human workers. For dexterous robots that interact with people and without safety fences, wireless technologies suitable for safety-critical operation (URLLC) might be a further requirement. Supervisory operations might need to rely on low-latency machine controls (again, using URLLC) to prevent an imminent collision. Abilities to stream (using EMB) abundant 3D data from a robot could also prove important. Imaginably, a central server might have full control of a robot that picks a package from a shelf and then navigates through a community to deliver the package (again, requiring EMB, including handover). In other words, 6G applications might require concurrent use of all of the capabilities that separate teams of 5G developers are now striving to realize.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Mobile-communications services, network equipment, electric-power transmission and distribution, gas utilities, water distribution, airports, shipping ports, distribution centers, factories, location-tracking products and services

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: