Edge and 5G computing have been promising transformative computing for a number of years, but it’s only lately that compelling and viable use cases have been emerging, pushing these technology sets into the mainstream.
The phenomenon has been accelerating. The latest data from the Global Mobile Suppliers Association shows there are at least 1,650 commercially available 5G devices from 238 manufacturers, rising at a clip of 50% a year. Such devices gather, transmit, and process data across a wide range of systems, from aircraft to automobiles to factory floors — and more.
The issue with previous generations of wireless and edge computing has been speed, which often did not deliver the low latency required for increasingly sophisticated constellations of machines, devices, and corporate networks. Now, with the low latency and high speeds delivered through 5G technology — and eventually, 6G — the edge will serve as a new locus of innovation for organizations.
According to a report out of global management consulting firm McKinsey, “5G will deliver network speeds that are about ten times faster than current speeds on 4G LTE networks, with expectations of speeds that are up to 100 times faster with 40 times faster latency.”
Subsequently, an analysis out of The Manufacturing Institute agrees, saying “5G is a significant step beyond 4G.” Still, its predecessor, 4G LTE, will likely be around for a while, supporting “high-bandwidth applications for tasks such as streaming video and real-time applications that require very low latency,” the report’s authors state. For now, “LTE and 5G are widely expected to coexist on the same private networks for at least the next five years.”
Such super-fast computing means real-time capabilities for applications such as AI-driven speech, written word, or computer-vision algorithms. “Innovation develops around personal networks of experts at the porous edge of the organization and is supported by capabilities that scale the benefits across the business,” the McKinsey report authors point out.
Cutting-edge use cases
Along with accessibility and ease of deployment, there is a range of innovative use cases that are emerging as well, thanks to the additional power and speed 5G brings to the edge.
High-speed edge enables cities to monitor and manage traffic, control pollution, and even prevent crime. “Imagine networked devices ranging from smart parking sensors, energy meters, and networked traffic lights that coordinate to improve performance,” says Swarun Kumar, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “With the recent increase in wildfires, for example, wireless connectivity to air pollution sensors deployed over wide areas can prove pivotal in measuring and monitoring air quality at a much finer granularity than before.” This will ensure that city administrators will have real-time access to events within their communities.
5G enables autonomous vehicles “to communicate with each other and other connected, intelligent parts of the transportation grid using technologies referenced under the umbrella term vehicle-to-everything (V2X),.” the Manufacturing Institute researchers state. This applies to drones, industrial vehicles such as forklifts as well as trucks or passenger cars. Administrators overseeing vehicle fleets for distribution and other functions will be able to provide customers with real-time information on the status of deliveries.
Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)
While IoT is seen as connecting consumer devices, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is based on the networks of sensors, instruments, machines, and other devices that enhance manufacturing processes and applications. Edge and 5G devices can play a role in “measuring how efficiently factory machines are operating and the environmental factors that can affect that operation, such as temperature and humidity. IIoT-driven data can even unlock new business opportunities in terms of allowing precise monitoring of costs for manufacturing-as-a-service scenarios,” according to the Manufacturing Institute.
Digital twins are digital representations of physical assets or facilities that enable users “to understand and predict changes with how people, products and processes interact,” the Manufacturing Institute reports. “Digital twins can be used reactively or proactively. When used reactively, they can be studied to pinpoint inefficiencies that may be difficult to detect using only visual observation. When used proactively, managers can conduct what-if scenarios that can be analyzed without disrupting production processes.”
Extended reality (XR)
Technologies such as virtual and augmented reality have “particular value in sectors like construction and manufacturing, where participants can see detailed models of complex machinery,” according to Manufacturing Institute researchers. “Manufacturers can present data and information about machinery in spatially relevant ways, which in turn can aid workers in maintenance, repair, and training. XR applications are ideally experienced through a headset.” Technicians, for example, will be able to conduct maintenance or upgrades on equipment that possibly may be located on the other side of the globe.
Enabling the edge
The growth of these technologies is not occurring in a vacuum. Adjacent technologies such as AI, microprocessors, and hybrid cloud are opening doors widely to edge and 5G innovation. For instance, “hybrid cloud architectures have allowed mixed usage of cloud and edge resources, allowing for less time-critical applications to run on the cloud,” Kumar says.
In turn, edge and 5G are potentially resolving a dilemma that has long hampered cloud adoption, Kumar continues. “Cloud data centers are usually far removed from cellular towers, meaning that transporting data back and forth between these and cell towers would simply be too time-consuming,” he says. “Edge computing has fundamentally altered this with its key promise to bring computing closer to where it’s actually needed. Smaller and simpler commodity computers placed closer to the cell towers can be leveraged to do much of the compute.”
With 5G and beyond, “the boundaries between traditional computing systems and wireless systems are becoming increasingly less rigid. Traditional cellular systems have resisted extensive usage of the cloud,” Kumar says.
Combined with these adjacent technologies, 5G will see accelerated adoption, Kumar predicts. Cloud services “have the potential to fundamentally reduce the costs of procuring advanced 5G hardware by leveraging widely available off-the-shelf computing resources where needed,” he says. “More importantly, they allow for easy software upgrades of the 5G stack, enabling new applications that can be seamlessly integrated.”
Cloud-supported edge further “allows innovations in AI across varying applications — configuring the networks, improving speeds, detecting security threats — to directly be weaved in without new hardware,” Kumar adds. “An easy way to think about this is to remember what happened with the softwarization of the phone, which meant that an app store with millions of dedicated software solutions could customize any given phone. Weaving general purpose compute with 5G base stations has the potential to create that very same effect — this time within cellular towers.”
5G and the edge’s impact on various industries
This capability means changes for a range of industries, from manufacturing to medicine. Already, edge and 5G computing implementations are driving operations across the manufacturing sector, according to The Manufacturing Institute analysis. By connecting systems and data across facilities, and incorporating computer vision, manufacturers can develop new services around predictive maintenance, as well as reconfigure or redeploy systems and machinery as part of a “modular factory” approach, in which components, systems, and product lines can be dynamically ramped up or swapped out to meet capacity demands.
A similar technology-driven trend — “Manufacturing as a Service” — promises to enable producers to secure capacity and capabilities on demand and as needed without upfront costs, in the same manner as cloud services are secured.
The possibilities for edge and 5G aren’t limited to manufacturing — there are multiple applications within other industries such as healthcare and medicine. For example, “Using embedded IoT trackers, 5G enables medical staff to monitor patient vitals in real time, which is crucial for responding to health issues as quickly as possible,” Matthias Foo, an industry analyst with ABI Research, points out. “And video feedback can be used to ensure the patient takes the correct medication. ‘High-definition video transmission’ would greatly benefit artificial intelligence-based patient monitoring platforms that enable primary care physicians and elderly patients to directly communicate with one another virtually.” Other developments underway include remote surgery and connected ambulances.
“5G is a technological paradigm shift, not just an extension of existing technology,” according to the authors of the Manufacturing Institute report.
“High data volumes will enable augmented and virtual reality to be delivered over mobile networks, usher in 8K video capabilities and replace fixed broadband, meaning more objects can be connected in more places. Low latency enables mission-critical applications, such as remote mining, traffic control, holograms, and real-time factory control. Massive device connectivity will change how and what is measured through applications such as smart meters, logistics tracking, and smart biometrics,” the report explained.
Expect to see greater reliability and resiliency as well with 5G. Highly mobile devices implanted in vehicles, robots, and even drones will not only ensure real-time connectivity with operators and between systems, but provide real-time responses to anomalies that will assure smoother operations.
What to expect for 6G
The next phase of wireless development will be seen within 6G technology, which is expected to be developed and rolled out within the next seven years, closely integrating ubiquitous artificial intelligence and real-time analytics.
Samsung Electronics first outlined the concepts behind 6G in July 2020. Then, the company’s “6G Framework” was introduced in June 2023 by a working party of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an agency of the United Nations overseeing collaboration on information and communication technologies. Samsung Research’s HyoungJin Choi led that working party along with two other Samsung colleagues. They published a Samsung Research post that said final approval by ITU is expected by the end of the year.
The developing standard “aims to provide immersive experiences, hyper-connections, and hyper low latency services by further improving the service and performance when compared with what is available with existing IMT-2020 (5G),” explains Choi and his co-authors.
6G will represent an advancement over its predecessor “through integration of communication and artificial intelligence and integration of communication and sensing,” they state. Immersive multimedia and multi-sensory interactions are enabled through “wide area multi-dimensional sensing that provides spatial information about unconnected objects as well as connected devices and their movements and surroundings.”