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From remote driving to remote surgery, we need more than just another G

(Image credit: O2)

It is a life and death situation. Surgeons can’t afford to make mistakes when carrying out medical procedures. But as technology progresses in medicine, the reliability of the connection will be just as important as the skills of the doctor when it comes to a successful operation. That is because we are set to see a new wave of procedures being carried out that rely on true 5G performance. Any trace of network latency could prove catastrophic.

For the common smartphone user, 5G may be just another G. Over the past 30 years, consumers have seen a steady drumbeat of “Gs” accompanying steps forward in handheld technology. But the next generation most certainly is not – just another G. The shift from 4 to 5 presents an exponential jump in data and drop in latency that fundamentally shifts the applications and capabilities which can be built around it. 

From remote and autonomous driving, to surgery performed from a city away, and industrial connectivity and manufacturing, the potential for 5G in the very near future is truly incredible. However, it is important to point out – the 5G icon on the upper right hand of your smartphone likely is not representative of the infrastructure needed for industrial capabilities. Most 5G networks are currently being built on top of 4G technology and, while they will provide a solid upgrade in data speed for the casual gamer or video streamer, they will not be rated for the low latency, reliability and consistent high data volumes required for much higher stakes professional applications. 5G New Radio (NR), however, is rated for precisely those applications.

With 5G NR, world-class surgeons will be able to perform complex brain surgery miles away; fleets can be made autonomous, with the ability to remotely take control of a vehicle at any time for more complex or dangerous driving; and the consistent, ongoing stream of data between vehicles can set the foundation for fully autonomous driving that stands to make vehicle collisions a thing of the past.

These are not abstract future use cases, but are being tested today. Doctors in China recently used 5G to remotely monitor parts of three successful orthopaedic procedures. In India, via surgical robotic equipment, a doctor performed multiple percutaneous coronary interventions on patients 20 miles away. And in January last year, again in China, a doctor successfully used 5G to remove the liver of a test animal 30 miles away.

Tomorrow’s world today

For many in complex surgery, even neurosurgeons, there is an increasing viewpoint that remote surgery will be commonplace in their careers in the future. What once seemed like science fiction is now an obvious and almost inevitable progression. Robots, in general, provide a much higher potential for dexterity and sensitivity in surgery. What for a doctor is one millimetre of sensitivity can multiply by ten or one hundred using a robot, leading to much more sophisticated, lower risk surgeries. With 5G NR, these robotic surgeries would be just as effective in person as miles away. 

In transport, vehicle fleets are experimenting with 5G to connect amongst themselves, often forming caravans for greater efficiency and safety. In the very near future, a remote system may allow a driver to pilot a vehicle through a city to a motorway, where it then autonomously joins a caravan and moves hundreds of miles through lower risk driving scenarios before being picked up again by a remote driver at the next city.

For companies that stand to benefit from the immense potential of 5G NR, the time to begin experimentation and testing is now. Next generation technology infrastructure and architectures are being standardised today, meaning companies do not need a crystal ball to have a clear sense of how the technology will function, and what the applications could be.

One thing that both the automotive and medical industries have in common is that they both have to work a few years ahead of deployment. That means they are already planning the future today and I know from conversations with businesses in automotive and medical sectors that they are already being asked about the possibilities of 5G NR by their customers. It is vital then for these industries, and many others for that matter, to get hands on and begin to see how 5G NR will enhance the way they do business and how it can generate value for customers.

In manufacturing, 5G NR will enhance the Industry 4.0 concept and will finally make possible the fully wireless factory, because this technology is now able to challenge the reliability and latency of traditional time sensitive wired data connections.

By getting hands-on in 2020 with industrial strength 5G NR – companies can get ahead of the competition, leading the next generation of incredible possibilities when 5G NR system architectures go into mass production.

Dr. Juan Nogueira Nine, director of the Center of Excellence for Wireless and Connectivity, Flex (opens in new tab)

Dr. Nogueira is director of the Center of Excellence for Wireless and Connectivity at Flex. He defines technology roadmaps and evaluates new innovative solutions in the field of wireless communication.