Wireless advances likely to make an impact

Jan. 9, 2024
Wireless capabilities will continue to expand by leaps and bounds

I doubt many people foresaw the impact that generative artificial intelligence (gen AI) would have on industry in 2023. However, that shouldn’t stop us from using our crystal ball to look at wireless advances likely to impact us over the next few years.

While the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) doesn’t develop standards, it does coordinate with seven telecommunications, standards-developing organizations to produce reports and specifications that define 3GPP technologies. It’s responsible for developing use cases and associated “specifications” for upcoming New Radio (NR) permutations (5G advanced) and next-generation, 6G documents. The most recent release of 3GPP documents, Release 18was issued on Dec. 22, 2023, with the following updates related to automation and controls:

·       Study of enhanced 700/800/900 MHz band combinations. Supports long-distance lower-data requirement installations such as SCADA;

·       Enhanced energy efficiency. Offers longer life for Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrial IoT (IIoT) implementations based on cellular backhaul;

·       Air-to-ground networks, satellite access and a 5G system with satellite backhaul. Provides better integration of 5G with satellite systems for remote areas or locations with minimal hard infrastructure such as fiber-optics;

·       Edge computing. Offers data aggregation and preprocessing to make better use of limited field resources;

·       System support for AI and machine learning (ML)-based services. Improves monitoring and use of the 5G infrastructure; and

·       Privacy. Enables privacy of identifiers over radio access and related security enhancements.

3GPP has also started working on Release 19 that will include features to support the following use cases:

·       A network of service robots with ambient intelligence and energy efficiency as service criteria;

·       Uncrewed aerial vehicles and increased use of autonomous vehicles and robots for security and deliveries, which requires a strong network connection with very low latency to perform well;

·       Improved satellite access;

·       Integrated sensing and communication;

·       Ambient power enabled IoT; and

·       A future railway mobile communication system and support for railway smart-station services.

Much of the 5G effort by service providers supports increased bandwidth. However, bandwidth isn’t the primary issue for most automation systems as they’re built and used today. If the use of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) take hold, particularly at field locations and control rooms, bandwidth will be a factor.

Fixed locations such as manufacturing facilities are more likely to support Wi-Fi with an alternate technology—5G or low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite—for the backhaul. Expansion of LEO satellite communication networks coverage continues to improve with reduced latency and renewed interest in satellite-based connectivity solutions. LEO networks aim to provide global, high-speed Internet coverage, even in remote and underserved areas, making them a viable option for remote SCADA applications.

Wi-Fi continues to evolve with IEEE expecting to approve the new Wi-Fi 7 standard in May 2024. Wi-Fi 7 offers a theoretical maximum throughput of 46 Gbit/s and aims to provide 100 times less latency compared to Wi-Fi 6. Other features of Wi-Fi 7 include multi-access point (AP) coordination, enhanced link adaptation and retransmission protocol. Of particular interest to the automation community, it can integrate time-sensitive networking (TSN). This puts Wi-Fi 7 and 5G in direct competition for high-bandwidth requirements in congested areas, which won’t be too much of an issue for the control space when you attend your next sporting event. Do you log on to the public Wi-Fi network or, assuming you’re a subscriber to the wireless provider, consume some of your monthly bandwidth? (Fair warning: I’ve seen demos of 5G running at 4 Gbit/s, which means the monthly allowance can disappear quickly.)

Finally, despite the fact it’s designed for 100 Mbit/s, it’s only a matter of time before we see an advanced physical layer (APL)-powered wireless access point for wireless sensor network(s) such as WirelessHART or ISA100.11a. However, it could also provide the lower-bandwidth Wi-Fi required by AR on a local table to grant access to manuals and historical maintenance records via a local, handheld device.

One thing’s for certain, wireless capabilities continue to expand by leaps and bounds. It appears the only constraint is our imagination.