5G sensors making ultra-low latency a reality


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

“There is nothing like this available in the manufacturing sector. This is a fully integrated 5G device that can be connected to anything on the shop floor, from machines, sensors, automation and robots, to building management systems,” said Dr Aparajithan Sivanathan, Senior Software Engineer at AMRC North West.

Dr Sivanathan is project lead for the 5G Factory of the Future project, a £9.5m, two-year programme funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and delivered by a consortium from industry which includes BAE Systems, IBM, aql, MTT, Miralis, Digital Catapult, and is being led by AMRC North West, part of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult.

Digital Infrastructure Minister, Matt Warman MP, welcomes the sensor and says it can help manufacturers capitalise on the potential of 5G technology.

He said: “5G can play a massive role driving productivity in production lines up and down the country and I look forward to seeing this new kit in action on the factory floor.

“We have invested £200m in projects across the UK that use 5G in new ways to improve lives and boost the economy and I’m delighted that it has led to yet another innovation in this cutting-edge sensor.”

5G Factory of the Future is an open-access industrial testbed that aims to find new and more efficient ways of manufacturing to help lead industry towards a smart, sustainable and resilient future. The programme will transform manufacturing by unlocking the potential of 5G technologies in the sector to accelerate industrial digitalisation. The testbed will be based primarily at AMRC North West’s soon-to-be-completed £20m facility on the Samlesbury Aerospace Enterprise Zone in Lancashire.

Dr Sivanathan said a key part of the testbed is connecting every piece of equipment on a factory floor to a 5G network.

He said: “This will bring the physical elements of a factory floor even closer to intelligent, computational units; essentially it will weave an invisible, cyber-physical fabric necessary to achieve the vision of Industry 4.0 and beyond. Eventually, 5G is expected to become the de-facto connectivity standard for the manufacturing industry, enabled by its low latency, bandwidth and fine-grained controllability.

“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.

“5G is promising to deliver ultra-low latency, as low as five milliseconds, 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, Embedded Systems Engineer at AMRC North West, led the development of the native 5G sensor, named Ventus.

He said: “We talk about a ‘latency budget’, so for each device you bring into your connectivity pipeline you are adding at least a few milliseconds of latency. What we needed in order to achieve this 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. Currently, the way other people are progressing this technology is to have a 5G customer-premises equipment (CPE) wired up to the robots, machines and computers to make a 5G network. Ventus is far more advanced than this because we have built 5G into the sensor, so it doesn’t need to be wired to anything else.

“Because Ventus has integrated 5G, we have the ultimate minimum latency, so if the 5G network supports five milliseconds, our testbed will be able to support five milliseconds. We have also added in a considerable amount of built-in compute 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 a fast fourier transform (FFT) algorithm on the vibration data.

“Even with the 5G’s increased bandwidth capabilities, some of the time-critical data streams can be overwhelming for the network infrastructure, particularly when a large number of sensors are involved. 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 stage of the project is to conduct testing on the Ventus native 5G sensor at AMRC North West. Dr Sivanathan says when the £20m facility is opened later this year, the nature of the 5G network means every new piece of equipment could be immediately 5G enabled.

He said: “We are building a kind of a reference design so if any new machine comes in, we will be able to immediately integrate it into the 5G network. Ventus is flexible and general purpose, so an industrial computer, a processor, a robotic arm, PLCor a 3D printing machine can all become 5G enabled. Our design is modular and it includes a plethora of commonly used low-level industrial interfaces, from analogue to digital converters, charge amplifiers, ethernet, USB and many others.

Professor Rab Scott is the University of Sheffield AMRC’s Head of Digital, one of the testbed spokespeople and sits on the UK5G manufacturing group.

He said: “The work that Dr Sivanathan and his team have been doing on Ventus is a game changer. The removal of milliseconds of latency in the manufacturing process may not sound a lot, but it can be the difference between success and failure, between a perfect part and a scrap part.

“5G communications as a whole 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.”