The Network Of The Future: How 5G Will Power Efficient Industrial Applications

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Building new wind farms is a powerful way of getting more renewable energy to homes and businesses. But what if you could squeeze more electricity from wind turbines already spinning in the fields? For that, you need more information. “The name of the game with wind turbines is all about efficiency,” says Eric Tucker, senior director of technical products at GE Research. “The more wind they’re capturing, the more energy they can create.”

But getting that extra efficiency is no easy task. First of all, you need technology that can quickly collect information about how individual turbines are doing. GE Renewable Energy already monitors entire fleets of turbines, and Tucker’s colleagues at GE Research, for example, have been looking for new ways to embed more sensors inside the machines. Now GE is taking on the next task: They are designing 5G wireless networks that could allow wind farm operators to access the data faster and get more electricity from their turbines.

5G, of course, is the next level in wireless communications. Switching from a current 4G network to a 5G system is like trading in your jalopy for a sports car. The 5G networks that have been popping up around the world can boast data speeds 10 to 100 times faster than 4G technology. They can also be more secure and reliable, use less energy and cause fewer delays. They can serve thousands of users and devices at the same time with little performance loss, regardless of whether the users are indoors or outdoors.

One version of the technology in particular — ultra-wideband 5G — could transform many industries. It enables short-range, high-bandwidth communications and could make it possible, for example, to quickly and reliably collect data not only from wind turbines but also from jet engines when planes arrive at the gate, smoothing the way for smarter predictive maintenance. It could enable smart communities, connected cars, robotic surgery and many other things.

SM Hasan, 5G mission leader at GE Research, says it’s 5G’s combination of speed, scale and near-instantaneous response time that has the potential to take the operation and management of industrial assets and systems to a whole new level of performance. “The superior network speed and capacity of 5G networks will allow us to take full advantage of a multitude of digital technologies to transform industrial assets and operations,” Hasan added. “From AI and machine learning to digital twins and autonomous technologies, 5G can accelerate the path to everything from self-driving cars and digital health to more resilient, reliable energy grids powered by more carbon-free energy assets like intelligent wind farms.”

Scientists at GE’s Research Lab have been working with 5G-related technologies for half a decade. They’ve been using it to design warehouses with instantaneous inventory management, for example, or to build augmented reality tools that let a remote operator see where a forklift is going.

But until recently, most of that research work has had to happen outside of the lab. In one instance, GE technicians had to crisscross a facility with their mobile phones in hand and measure the signal strength near their sensors. “How do I make this near real-time and pervasive? It’s very, very hard, because these environments really didn’t have connectivity,” explains Ben Verschueren, growth leader at GE’s Forge Lab (see video below).

All that’s about to change. Last week, GE Research and Verizon partnered to build a 5G test bed at the Forge Lab at GE Research in Niskayuna, New York. The test bed will have 5G radio antennas connected to a robust radio access network (RAN). It will allow the researchers to design and test 5G-enabled technologies for use in healthcare, transportation, energy and other industries.

The goal is to improve efficiency and enable real-time monitoring of machine components like wind turbine blades and patients recovering from a surgery in the hospital or even at home. “It transforms business models on how healthcare devices work and how I interact with my doctor,” says Verschueren.

In aviation, 5G could enable the use of augmented reality devices that give maintenance crews contextual information about the state of an engine or the status of a repair, and even allow them to bring in a remote expert to help with maintenance questions. “At GE, our history has either been in the business of disrupting industries or being the market shaper in a mature industry,” Tucker says. “5G is [as big an] industry disruptor [as] any other digital disruptor in the last 20 years.”

Top image credit: GE Research.

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