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5G: Compelling business applications and use cases

Alyson Edmunds, Head of Digital Innovation at O2, discusses a number of compelling business and industrial use cases for 5G that we have been working on

Back in July 2018 O2’s CEO, Mark Evans, wrote to every Chief Executive of companies in the FTSE 100 Index to invite them to participate in O2’s 5G Testbed trials, in preparation for our 5G launch in 2019. Our goal then was to understand the business challenges and use cases that would benefit most from 5G, including improving efficiencies in supply chains and production processes, as well as enhancing the customer experience.

Earlier this week, I caught up with my colleague, Elizabeth Ponsford, Senior Product Manager for 5G at O2. I wanted to find out more about the use cases that O2’s programme has uncovered, as well as the progress we have made towards enabling them.

Elizabeth, what response did the initial approach to FTSE 100 companies get?

So, I joined the 5G project team soon after Mark Evans wrote to the FTSE 100 companies, and we spent the following 6-12 months in workshops with around forty organisations, not exclusively FTSE 100 but many of our largest business customers, exploring applications of 5G across a broad range of customers and business sectors.

Did you uncover similarities among the challenges that organisations wanted to address?

I think it’s fair to say that although the potential applications for 5G were extremely wide ranging, the benefits tended to fall into one of three broad categories:  driving operational efficiencies, safeguarding and empowering employees, and creating more personalised, interactive experiences.

There were those that will rely on new or additional technology like Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in order to deliver substantial business benefits. Then there were challenges that require the high speed and the low latency that 5G offers – the obvious example here is remote operations and autonomous vehicles. And finally, there were the cases where 5G improves, or makes faster, what is already possible using existing networks.

We often hear people talk about the need for businesses to improve their customer experience. What are the sorts of use cases that demonstrate how 5G might help?

Well, we have recently completed a proof of concept in a major railway station in London to identify ways to improve the passenger experience in a public space where congestion is common.

However, with more of us having to work from home, foot fall is down substantially, and the primary concern of passengers is how to feel safe and secure. By linking LiDAR technology and cameras with an AI application, real time station usage can be monitored and reported on, including things like social distancing and mask wearing. Potential congestion and bottlenecks can be prevented or acted upon, through automated reconfiguring of passenger routes and walkways around the station complex.

I’ve seen another use case recently that uses similar technology in a shopping mall. The mall’s capacity has been reduced, but by using video analytics to count shoppers in and out, both social distancing and use of face masks is being monitored. This information is then relayed back to potential visitors using smart signage – For example, with a message like ‘we are at 20% capacity – so you can browse and shop safely’.

I’ve heard you talk about use cases that you have collectively called ‘remote experts’. What are these?

One of the use cases I’ve been involved is about how 5G can transform the way organisations deliver technical support in the field. It involves using 5G connectivity and Augmented Reality to link two people remotely.

When equipment fails, or an unspecified fault occurs, most organisations have to call in an experienced engineer to diagnose and rectify the fault. But with 5G enabled video communication and an AR headset a regular field technician can broadcast exactly what he or she sees to a more experienced engineer based elsewhere. The engineer can guide the technician through the task, annotate directly on the screen and serve them with digital content to enable them to complete the work. It also allows the technician to capture video or images of their work, upload directly into the Cloud, to be later used for auditing or training.

It needn’t just be about technical support either. The same technology could be used to connect a patient in hospital with a specialist consultant based at home. O2 worked on a pilot project with technology start up IOCOM to improve the prospects for stroke victims in the east of England. A consultant was able to see and talk to a patient suspected of suffering a stroke remotely, review the results of CT scans and other test data, and then arrange for potentially lifesaving treatment to be administered quickly. Better still, the consultant is able to support patients in a number of hospitals simultaneously, day or night.

Could the same technology be used to support wider training and development?

Absolutely. In fact, one of our workshops involved a manufacturer of complex, military grade helicopters. The same technology could be used to deliver training to their engineers in a remote and really efficient way, by simulating an environment and delivering immersive training via VR headsets.  We proved this during a recent trial over 5G with Northumbrian Water Group in the summer.

In fact, as more of us work remotely, or from home, I believe that this application of the technology will be widely adopted.

What other applications or use cases have particularly interested you?

I think there are a broad range of applications that could be grouped together under the heading ‘automation’. They include processes that could be automated either to provide business efficiencies, safeguarding or both.

We’ve recently completed a PoC with NWG (Northumbrian Water Group), deploying drones to fly across reservoirs, looking for bubble patterns that indicate a ruptured or damaged compressed air line. Formerly, the only way to locate and diagnose these faults was from a boat. By swapping boats fordrones , the whole reservoir could be scanned in around fifteen minutes, considerably more efficient, cost-effective and safer than deploying engineers in boats.

Although this is quite a specific application, it is quite easy to think of dozens of remote monitoring and surveillance applications that would benefit a vast number of construction, agricultural and other organisations.  Particularly where monitoring and maintenance is required in hard to reach or hazardous places.

Where do you think that 5G will enable the most significant advances?

The use cases which rely on 5G’s ultra-low latency are where we will see the most significant advances – these are the applications which demand near real time reactions. For example, autonomous vehicles, robots and many remote operations are not realistic with delayed latency.

Precision Engineering is another example, or environments where autonomous machines and humans share the same space. Private networks can enable these applications right now and  these types of application will become more prevalent as 5G networks become more widely available.

What are the use cases and applications that excite you most? Which would improve your organisation’s efficiency, productivity or safety? I’d love to hear from you. You can connect with me via LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.

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