The 5G network opens exciting possibilities for creating high-tech warehouses and manufacturing plants where collaborative robots—or cobots—feature alongside other high-tech advancements like computer vision, augmented reality, and big data platforms.
However, security researchers also warn that the rise of 5G connectivity could increase network exposure risks, increasing the possibility of devastating cyberattacks. For example, teams of cybercriminals may view it as an exciting challenge to hack a network and cause as much disruption as possible. If the aftermath affects a leading manufacturing or supply chain company, the damage could cause financial and reputation-related ramifications. However, advancements related to 5G and cobots could make industrial networks and a facility’s machines safer.
Harnessing the Potential of Private Networks
As you might guess from their name, a private 5G network has dedicated infrastructure and bandwidth for its owner to use. These private networks are increasingly popular among manufacturers and other industrial users that demand high-reliability, low latency performance for critical tasks. A private network does not mitigate risks stemming from all cybersecurity issues. However, it makes them significantly more manageable.
For example, it's much easier for an IT leader to notice suspicious traffic levels on a private network compared to one that may have thousands of other users associated with nearby entities. That’s a notable benefit, considering that more than 40% of manufacturers suffered cyberattacks in 2020.
Farming equipment maker John Deere also recently invested $500,000 in private 5G networks, allowing it to pursue the associated opportunities sooner, even in rural areas that don’t yet have widespread 5G rollouts occurring. The organization’s leaders believe private 5G will be vital for updating its processes and achieving more flexibility.
A company using a private 5G network could also move ahead with a zero-trust architecture so that no users are automatically assumed safe to access the infrastructure or its resources. Together, these aspects could make cobots safer by reducing the chances that cybercriminals could achieve successful hacks.
Combining Human Judgment with Robotic Innovation
A downside associated with even the most advanced robots is that all their training cannot surpass the decades of real-life experience a human operator may have. However, an ongoing 5G project involving Hitachi, Ericsson, and other industry partners uses the advanced network to give cobots new capabilities.
More specifically, humans can control the robots with remotes. Plus, each machine has analysis and control functions on a multi-access edge computing (MEC) server. The 5G network processes real-time sensor data and sends it to human operators for further analysis. A person could then use their judgment to give the cobot instructions about how to deal with an abnormality.
One experiment concerned a fully automated robotic arm used for picking tasks. Suppose something went wrong, such as the cobot having difficulty picking up an object due to being in the wrong position. In that case, a human could take command of the situation after reviewing the latest sensor data. Research indicated that this approach could cut work time by 50% to 70% compared to conventional options.
Besides boosting productivity, this method should enhance safety due to human oversight combined with timely data. A person may notice something a cobot is not programmed to recognize as a risk. The individual could then intervene to prevent an issue. Statistics indicate that cobots will comprise 30% of total robotics sales by 2027. People often fear machines will take their jobs, but this example shows how humans can keep working together with them.
Giving Cobots the Most Dangerous Tasks
The example above revealed how 5G could support cobots that people operate with remote controls. However, those were for relatively low risk gripping tasks. 5G researchers are also looking at options for remote-controlled cobots that tackle dangerous situations before humans arrive to deal with the associated hazards.
For example, a company received $1.5 million from the Australian government to develop a firefighting tank that works autonomously or with a remote control. A low band 5G network allows for long-range remote control of the device. The tank can also handle treacherous terrains, helping clear paths so that firefighters reach disaster scenes quicker. That use case could mitigate risks caused by teams not fully understanding the situation before arriving.
Similar use-cases could apply to the supply chain, too. For example, a cobot may be the better choice for dealing with toxic or flammable liquids, as well as products that could cause breathing difficulties if inhaled. However, such applications of 5G and cobots require taking precautionary measures. For example, protective wire and cable coverings safeguard cobots from the effects of corrosive chemicals and the mechanical stresses of repetitive movements.
Facilitating Safer Human-Robot Interactions
It’s impossible to remove all risks associated with cobot automation. However, engineers do the best they can by implementing features that make the machines stop moving when they come within a certain distance of people. Many discussions about 5G’s advantages center on its greatly enhanced speed capabilities over the 4G network. The speed improvement is a valid point, but many think safety will be another significant gain from 5G.
Better Safety in Close Surroundings
Humans and cobots work together to assemble cars in the factory, often in close quarters. For example, while cobots install air bags, humans get tasked with other duties associated with the vehicle’s interior. However, using the 5G connection makes cobots stop within a millisecond if people get too close. More specifically, a virtual cell and a light curtain set the boundary between the person and a cobot. If the human worker crosses the light curtain, the robot automatically stops moving.
Oversight of Dangerous Tasks from a Safe Distance
For now, most cobots work within feet of humans. But, as some of the previous examples here have shown, 5G can substantially expand the distance over which a machine and human could interact to get a task done faster or more safely.
Another example of what’s possible involved a partnership between T-Mobile and Sarcos Robotics. It allows remote viewing of dangerous tasks while a cobot responds to a field operator’s commands. However, a second phase of the project will investigate controlling the cobot without being near it.
People can also mount the robot to numerous bases, such as those that enable reaching elevated heights or hard-to-access areas. Many robot advancements mean that humans can spend less time engaging in risky tasks. For example, autonomous forklifts keep people at safe distances, making it virtually impossible for them to suffer the accidents that lay common with those machines.
5G and Cobots: A Smarter, Safer Pairing
These examples show that there’s no single best way to create a safer environment for cobots and humans with 5G. Reducing potential network exposure by building private infrastructure is one approach, but it’s also necessary to investigate how to help cobot automation advance with the help of 5G’s advantages. Faster, more robust connectivity makes these things possible, leading to more widespread progress sooner than you might expect.