Posted By Simon Montford on March 5, 2016
Most of today's consumer drones are controlled via short-range signals like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or radio airwaves, so their capabilities are severely restricted, unlike military UAVs such as the Predator, that can be operated by a person located thousands of miles away. By utilising a 5G cellular network, however, a consumer drone could theoretically (regulation aside) be controlled from anywhere and have limitless range just like military drones do today. Currently 4G is incapable of providing this capability because it can't offer real-time feedback as there's simply too much of a delay between when you send a signal and when you get a response, known as latency.
Combine "always connected" 5G drones with cloud-based A.I., and tomorrow's robots of the sky will be gifted with superpowers! This is because all the processing will be undertaken by super-computers in the cloud, negating the need for them to carry heavy payloads in the form of battery-draining processors, or storage capacity. At MWC, IBM demonstrated a sociable little biped that was able to conduct a conversation with an IBM employee in real-time. It was only able to do this because it was connected to IBM Watson. Remember that drones are nothing more than flying robots, so replacing legs with propellers isn't a huge leap.
Ericsson demoed a quadcopter on their stand at MWC, which anyone could try operating via a haptic feedback controller (further details about the device can be found on the company's Research Blog). When held, the operator could feel resistance, which increased as the distance between the drone and the object decreased. The object in this case was a scale model of a wind turbine. It was fascinating to watch the micro drone hover around it, and I was reassured to know that the drone was safely contained within a perspex box (see video below), so we were safe in the event that the operator or controller malfunctioned! In a real-world scenario, of course, the object would be a full-size wind turbine, or other industrial asset such as a building, pipeline, or cellular tower. Also, the type of commercial drones utilised for asset inspection today tend to be far larger than the one demoed by Ericsson. Most weigh around 55lbs/25kg but they can reach up to 88lbs/40kg, depending on where the drone is operated. This is because different aviation authorities around the world enforce different regulations on the use of commercial UAVs.
The point of the demo was to showcase the low latency capability of 5G, which in this example, enabled anyone visiting Ericsson's stand to have a go at using the real-time haptic feedback controller to prevent the micro drone from colliding into the miniature wind turbine. In my opinion, it was clear that the haptic feedback technology was really nothing more than a red herring. This is because human-controlled drones will soon become a thing of the past, so it's unlikely that haptic feedback controllers, such as the one demoed by Ericsson, will be utilised by the asset inspection industry for very long, if at all. This is because I predict aviation authorities will soon realise that autonomous drones are capable of flying far more safely than those piloted by humans. Just like self-driving cars, the next generation of drones won't get bored with repetitive tasks, they won't get tired, and they won't get irritable, all things that often lead to driver or pilot error.
Although aviation authorities are understandably being hyper-cautious, within the not-too-distant future, 5G will make "connected A.I." the norm. Drones will, therefore, be able to make sense of the world around them and, thanks to technologies like LiDAR, will come with machine vision capabilities and collision avoidance as standard. They will also have an awareness of their operational environment, so will be capable of learning and adapting to sudden changes on the fly, quite literally!
Make no mistake, 5G will be a game-changer as it promises to offer seamless streaming of high-definition movies, almost zero-latency multi-player gaming, real-time live broadcasting, better connectivity while on the move (in-vehicle) and so on, but us humans won't be the only ones enjoying its benefits. When it finally gets the go-ahead, robots will also have cause for celebration. With ultra-fast, low-latency connectivity, 5G will turn the Internet of Things into a network of super-smart objects that will inhabit almost every facet of our lives; operating on land, in our cities and homes, in the air, and out at sea.
I also predict that they will play a very important role in outer space, because it will be far safer and cheaper to send a drone to, say, harvest space debris, or repair a satellite, than it would a human. Perhaps one day we'll even send fleets of them on space missions to undertake reconnaissance, or prepare a planet for human colonisation, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. For now, I'm just looking forward to the day when I, and the entire human race, will be able to watch live video on a smartphone without it buffering every five seconds!
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