The 5G network to be rolled out in the Netherlands in a few years’ time will expand and accelerate our mobile internet. But that’s not all. It is also indispensable for innovations such as self-driving cars and all kinds of virtual reality applications. However, this will require a network that is both reliable and robust. The research being carried out by TNO’s Hans van den Berg is helping to bring this about. That work has earned him a prestigious award.
The International Teletraffic Congress (ITC) has awarded Prof. Van den Berg the Arne Jensen Lifetime Achievement Award for ‘outstanding research contributions’ in the area of optimizing communications network reliability and performance. “I’ve been working on that since the early 1990s,” Prof. Van den Berg says. “Network technology is developing at a furious pace, so people in my field are constantly having to come up with new solutions.”
Self-driving cars are a good example of this “To start with, you need totally reliable, lightning-fast wireless networks capable of handling enormous amounts of data. However, a car like this does not have the road to itself. It also needs to take account of other self-driving cars and various obstacles. This involves collecting data on the surroundings and on other road users, then storing and analysing it in local clouds. That also demands speed and reliability, plus technologies that can immediately compensate for a failure in one part of the network.”
“In emergencies, 5G networks can take action autonomously”
5G networks are particularly well-suited to this, as they are very flexible and incorporate a certain degree of intelligence. In emergencies, they can take action autonomously: “This is only possible if they are programmable, and things are increasingly going that way.” That built-in intelligence can also be used to mediate communication across the net: “The intensity of data traffic will vary enormously. The risk of the network becoming overloaded can be mitigated by exploiting its inbuilt flexibility to the full, aided by big data and various statistical techniques. The trick is to make sure that self-driving cars operate safely in busy traffic.”
Cooperation with network operators
The ITC award may have had Hans van den Berg’s name on it, but he does not work alone. In addition to his role as a part-time professor at the University of Twente, he is involved in various national and European projects on behalf of TNO. These projects involve cooperation with various government bodies, universities and companies, such as network operators KPN and Orange, and network supplier Nokia. TNO is in charge of several of these projects. In recent years, Prof. Van den Berg has also served as Vice Chairman of ‘Autonomous Control for a Reliable Internet of Services’ (ACROSS), a European platform for cooperation.
“5G offers huge opportunities and benefits, but, at the same time, it makes us increasingly dependent on technology”
Internet of Skills
But what exactly is this ‘Internet of Services’? “Without being guilty of too much hype, you could describe this as the successor to the ‘Internet of Things’, which already connects all kinds of devices and sensors,” says Van den Berg. “By the way, another concept already in common use is the ‘Internet of Skills’, which goes a step further. What will that involve? Precision work requiring a great deal of knowledge and experience will soon be carried out remotely, via robots. We can even transport skills, in electronic form. This means they are programmed and uploaded at one location, then downloaded and applied at any other location. In theory, this is already possible, but the scale involved is expanding massively.”
Innovations in virtual reality
5G delivers the high-speed mobile data communication and large volumes that these new developments require. In time, this will have a huge impact on our society: “In addition to the self-driving car, which I have already mentioned, there is the world of Smart Industry. Here, it will soon be possible to remotely direct robots to perform specific tasks and to cooperate effectively. Then there are physicians who will be able to perform surgical procedures remotely. This is not exactly cutting edge technology, but these systems’ capabilities are expanding rapidly, as are their potential applications.”
“Virtual reality applications designed for self-driving cars are now becoming available. These will enable you to use travel time to meet with your colleagues in a shared virtual space”
Prof. Van den Berg also anticipates innovations in the area of virtual reality: “Virtual reality applications are popping up everywhere. In self-driving cars, for example, they can enable you to use travel time to meet with colleagues in a shared virtual space. There are also a range of options in the area of personal training. Here, virtual reality would enable you to practice specific skills in those situations that meet your needs. Wherever you want.”
Reliability is enormously important
In this connection, it is vital for us to have a reliable IT infrastructure, concludes Van den Berg: “5G offers huge opportunities and benefits, but, at the same time, it makes us even more dependent on technology. We are becoming more vulnerable, as all sorts of essential services are utterly dependent on it. So we need to keep our mobile networks up and running. One way to do this is to make them smarter, which means they will also be more robust and resilient. That is the main thrust of my research.”