How 5G May Boost Science Research

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As 5G rolls out across the United States, wireless customers may be looking forward to faster downloads and seamless streaming — but the fifth-generation wireless network could impact much more than our smartphones and tablets. 5G’s increased speed and capacity, as well as new features, will open a world of possibilities for scientists working on data-driven projects, or in remote or extreme environments.

Through its 5G Initiative, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is funding projects at the DOE national laboratories to demonstrate how advanced wireless will benefit fundamental science research. Based on insight from scientists at the national laboratories during a 2020 workshop called “5G-Enabled Energy Innovation,” the Office of Science established the initiative and awarded $6 million in 2021.

5G networks outperform 4G in data movement, including bandwidth (data per second), latency (or lag), and density (the number of supported devices). The network can transmit up to 100 times more data with only millisecond delays, on par with many wired networks. 5G can also support about 100 times more devices within a given area because the network is built from many smaller, denser, and modular cells.

These updates mean 5G can support advances in data-rich fields such as artificial intelligence, automation, and quantum information science that 4G cannot. In particular, scientists are interested in using these capabilities to drive wireless devices in the field and in the laboratory. Wireless devices that collect data, such as sensors or drones, are at the “edge” of the digital continuum — or a series of connected electronics, from small devices to large data centers. Devices at the edge are typically programmed to perform a specific task, either sending information to or receiving instruction from a central computer. However, 5G could power more computation at the edge, making these frontline devices smarter and more versatile.

For example, 5G may support a flood of interacting, wireless devices with artificial intelligence programs, such as autonomous vehicles navigating rush-hour traffic. In laboratories and industrial settings, robots could be untethered from wires and become more agile, allowing for increasingly sophisticated movements and tasks. At large science facilities like light sources and particle accelerators, individual experiments might be autonomously optimized in real time to solve a particular science problem, rather than reconfigured hours or days later after human analysis.

Also, 5G’s low latency may let us convert traditionally wired systems to wireless, such as industrial control systems that depend on a reliable, high-speed network for performance and safety. Wireless control systems could enhance how we monitor and optimize the flow of electricity on the power grid, or how we design large, state-of-the-art experiments.

A new feature of 5G could be exceptionally useful for science. Unlike previous wireless generations, 5G networks can be sliced to provide tailored services to different connected devices. One device on a science experiment’s network may need lower latency to control the operation of experiment parts, whereas another device may need higher bandwidth to collect and share data. Network slicing also reduces energy use by not wasting power on unused services.

Overall, energy use for 5G networks is expected to drop as much as 90 percent, which presents new possibilities for experiments that have long data collection times. For example, experiments to measure the effects of climate change often place sensors and other equipment in rainforests, arctic tundra, or other remote locations for years at a time. If these devices use less energy, they may never need new batteries or hands-on maintenance — cutting costs, time, and risk for scientists.

Other features of 5G, such as high bandwidth, may also allow field sensors to be further spread out. These distributed sensors could wirelessly coordinate with each other to collect higher quality data over larger surface areas. Further, 5G’s higher frequency range may enable connectivity in extreme environments, such as underground, space, or inside hot or radioactive environments like nuclear reactors. Access to extreme environments could lead to entirely new research opportunities.

Last, but not least, security and privacy for 5G networks for science will be essential. Part of the research funded by the Office of Science explores how we can protect information relayed through 5G networks. For systems like the power grid or autonomous vehicles, securing wireless communications is not just about information protection but also physical safety.

5G has the potential to impact all areas of science research and could revolutionize our nation’s science infrastructure. In addition to the possible applications described here, scientists will likely find other innovative ways to apply advanced wireless to research and discovery.

Article courtesy of Office of Science.

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