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UK 5G sensors are first to connect to factory devices

09 September, 2021

Engineers at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) North West have designed and built a native 5G sensor designed to unlock the low latency and productivity potential of 5G in manufacturing.

“There is nothing like this available in the manufacturing sector,” says senior AMRC software engineer, Dr Aparajithan Sivanathan. “This is a fully integrated 5G device that can be connected to anything from machines, sensors, automation and robots, to building management systems.”

Dr Sivanathan is leading the £9.5m, Government-backed 5G Factory of the Future project which aims to transform manufacturing by unlocking the potential of 5G to accelerate industrial digitalisation. The two-year project includes setting up an open-access industrial testbed, a key role of which will be to connect every item of equipment on a factory floor to a 5G network.

“There is a huge appetite for 5G connectivity in manufacturing, but a major piece missing from the puzzle is the limited availability of 5G devices connecting the machines, robots and sensors,” Sivanathan explains. “5G is promising to deliver ultra-low latency – as low as 5ms – but there is currently very limited choice available to connect our industrial equipment to a 5G network.

“Existing devices are mostly consumer-grade, limited to mobile phones, USB dongles or routers, and not suitable for industrial use. Furthermore, multiple devices need to be daisy-chained to connect the industrial equipment to a 5G network – every device added to the chain introduces latency and that eventually jeopardises the original purpose.”

Zohaib Farhat, an embedded systems engineer at AMRC, led the development of the 5G sensor, which is called Ventus. “We talk about a ‘latency budget’,” he explains, “so for each device you bring into your connectivity pipeline, you are adding at least a few milliseconds of latency. What we needed to achieve ultra-low latency was our own terminal that could connect to our equipment and the 5G network directly – in effect, a native 5G device.

“No one has produced a direct integration between 5G and a device like this,” he adds. Other attempts have relied on 5G equipment being wired to robots, machines and computers to create 5G networks. “Ventus is far more advanced than this,” Farhat asserts, “because we have built 5G into the sensor, so it doesn’t need to be wired to anything else.

“Because Ventus has integrated 5G,” he continues, “we have the ultimate minimum latency – if the 5G network supports 5ms, our testbed will be able to support 5ms. We have also added a considerable amount of built-in computing power, allowing us to do some extremely low-latency processing, even before the data hits any 5G radio waves. We can use this, for instance, to compress video streams or run an FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) algorithm on vibration data.

The AMRC’s ultra-low-latency 5G sensor can immediately integrate items such as PLCs, robots or industrial PCs into 5G networks

“Even with the 5G’s increased bandwidth capabilities, some of the time-critical datastreams can be overwhelming for the network infrastructure, particularly when a large number of sensors are involved,” Farhat continues. “There is also an option to add an additional layer of security by encrypting the data before it gets handed over to the wireless modules – another means of enforcing the zero-trust policy.”

The next phase of the project will be to test the Ventus 5G sensor at a £20m testbed facility opening at AMRC North West later this year. “We are building a kind of a reference design so if any new machine comes in, we will be able to integrate it immediately into the 5G network,” Farhat explains. “Ventus is flexible and general purpose, so an industrial computer, processor, robot arm, PLC or 3D printing machine, can all become 5G enabled.”

The AMRC’s head of digital, Professor Rab Scott, believes that the work that Dr Sivanathan and his team are doing on Ventus is “a gamechanger”.

“The removal of milliseconds of latency in the manufacturing process may not sound a lot,” he says, “but it can be the difference between success and failure, between a perfect part and a scrap part.

“5G communications have the potential to accelerate huge productivity improvements of the UK’s manufacturing sector and to ensure that manufacturing does its part in the UK’s drive towards net-zero – and Ventus is a trailblazer for the sector.”

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