By Anke Henrich
An enormous tractor plows a potato field in the Netherlands with pinpoint accuracy. Above the vehicle there is a loud and continuous buzzing. As if controlled invisibly, a drone circles above the tractor, scanning every square meter of field in front of it. Its multispectral camera takes highly accurate images, which are then analyzed in real time by computers installed far away made possible by a mobile 5G connection. In just a blink of an eye, they signal the crop protection product nozzles on the tractor, telling them how much herbicide is needed in the soil right here, right now.
Agricultural technology manufacturers are top of the class when it comes to digitalization. Numerous innovations enable farmers, machinery, barns and traders to work together based on data exchanged via satellite and mobile communications. As a result, many farmers are looking to innovations in 5G, the next generation of mobile communication networks, with the same level of hope usually reserved for the weather forecast. After all, drone-optimized crop protection is not yet the norm - it is limited to a test field in the Netherlands. Many other mechanical engineering companies are also looking at the opportunities that 5G could bring. The hope is that machines will be able to communicate with one another and react in real time – and all this one hundred times faster than with the current 4G LTE network. That promises enormous potential for the production of tomorrow when it comes to increasing efficiency in factories.
A multi-billion-euro business
Germany's Federal Network Agency had auctioned the frequency blocks required for 5G since March 19, 2019. In the end interested companies such as Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefonica and 1&1 Drillisch pushed up the price to an impressive EUR 6.6 billion in almost 500 rounds of bidding. But why did this happen?
The hope is that companies will be able to operate different applications individually and in parallel across a large number of network levels - a technique known as ‘network slicing’. It is based on technologies such as network function virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networks (SDN), which can be combined.
Three applications are to be available to the industry: ultra-fast enhanced mobile broadband, large numbers of participants in machine-machine communication (massive machine type communications, Internet of Things) and ultra-reliable and low latency communications.
For mechanical engineering, 5G opens entirely new doors to connected production. The new mobile technology automates processes, accelerates the reconfiguration of machines and increases flexibility. With reaction times around one millisecond, machines, sensors, devices and IT systems can exchange data wirelessly even in real time-critical applications. This makes industrial applications that demand high reliability possible: driverless transport systems, mobile robots, predictive maintenance processes, and augmented reality applications. Experts expect logistics and supply chain management to be among the first beneficiaries. The extra data gained could be used as the basis for deriving new services as business models.
At this year's Hannover Messe, the new 5G technology was given its own forum in Hall 16. Visitors and speakers repeatedly returned to two questions: Do technology providers really know what industry needs? And: Are companies' plans for using 5G really business driven, or are they driven by the IT executives, or by the colleagues from Research & Development? The kick-off event therefore warned against relying on fast implementation of the new opportunities. After all, even outside Hall 16, not much has yet been put into practice.
Monetarization through applications
There is still a lot of work to be done before 5G becomes reality. The antennas needed for the transmission frequencies have to be installed, sufficient end devices provided and an infrastructure created for completing the first step - migrating from 4G to 5G through software updates and antenna filters.
While the licenses are being auctioned, another process involving many people is also ongoing: setting the standards for 5G. It will take another 15 to 20 months before a new standard can be incorporated in chips and products. The guiding principles are expected to be set in 2020, with introduction beginning in 2021.
Only then will 5G be everywhere it claims to be. Dr. Reinhard Heister, Managing Director VDMA Electrical Automation, warns, "The name 5G is already being marketed, even though the technology is largely based on 4G. We therefore like to talk of 4.5G or 4.9G. The 5G brand is unfortunately not a protected term when we talk about the new campus or slicing networks."
Real-time data transmission combined with self-learning artificial intelligence is also an attractive area for cyberattacks. Lutz Jänicke, Product & Solution Officer at Phoenix Contact, has a warning for companies: "The operator bears responsibility. If a 5G network is to be used in-house as a replacement for Wi-Fi, it will either have to be operated in-house, or all security questions will have to be agreed contractually with a telecommunications provider. In practice, smaller companies in particular lack the experience to do this."
Promotion at every level
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the new technology as mechanical and plant engineering companies. Quite the opposite: There is resistance, even at the highest level. Just a few weeks ago, the Belgian government called a halt to its 5G test project in Brussels, fearing that its strict radiation protection limits would be exceeded. Already 50 times lower than the international standard at six volts per meter, the limit in Brussels was increased to 14.5 volts per meter for the 5G test. But even that was not enough. The commercial operator network that provider Orange Belgium had planned to establish, has been put on ice. The same thing happened in Geneva, Switzerland.
As a result, the VDMA 5G User group founded in May has its work cut out - and not just in technical and political aspects. Dr. Reinhard Heister warns, "Positive public relations work on 5G is very important for our members and for mechanical and plant engineering. Our competitiveness lies in our innovation leadership, and Europe has to keep up. 5G networks will be the data lines of the future for mechanical engineering."