How 5G Will Revolutionize Industrial Control
John Koon posted on September 28, 2020 |
The continuing evolution of industrial control systems
(Image courtesy of Ericsson.)
(Image courtesy of Ericsson.)

The First Industrial Revolution, taking place between the 1760s and the 1840s, made the transition to industrialized manufacturing with steam power and the cotton gin. The Second Industrial Revolution, which lasted from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, introduced electrical power and telephones. The application of electricity to manufacturing processes gave rise to industrial control systems. Combinations of control components—electrical, mechanical, hydraulic or pneumatic—act together in an industrial control system to achieve an objective, such as the production, transportation or generation of material or energy. 

(Stock photo.)

(Stock photo.)

The Third Industrial Revolution has seen the emergence of communication technologies and renewable energy, as well as automation and data acquisition. Even before the internet’s explosive growth, critical industries, such as electricity and water distribution and manufacturing, began relying on industrial control systems. The advent of open, public networks also has enabled the remote management and maintenance of machines and equipment. 

A typical industrial control system consists of control loops, user interfaces that interact with humans, and remote diagnostics and maintenance tools. Several types of control systems exist, including supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, distributed control systems (DCS) and Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC). SCADA systems focus on data gathering and broader, distributed control, making them prevalent in utility grid management and oil and gas exploration, for example. Unlike SCADA systems, DCSs and PLCs are oriented toward local control and typically found in manufacturing applications. 

How IIoT Changes Everything 

Although the remote management of assets is more convenient and less costly than having staff work on-site, the response to problems may be slow. Therefore, it is crucial to identify and resolve issues in real-time. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) has tremendous capacity in data collection, storage, integration and analytics. Using this capacity, the Industrial IoT (IIoT) is improving interoperability and coordination among different industrial control systems, strengthening their ability to operate in harsh, remote environments. 

Oil rigs, utility grids, wind turbines, airports, railway networks and even cities are looking to the IIoT to reduce costs and improve effectiveness. For example, the IIoT can make the remote monitoring of sites possible to avoid labor-intensive work while increasing safety and efficiency. However, the benefits the IIoT can deliver depend on network speed and performance. 

The Promise of 5G and 6G

(Stock photo.)

(Stock photo.)

Telecommunication advances are likely to synergize with the IIoT in many sectors. 1G, the first generation of mobile communication, brought us cell phones. 2G, 3G and 4G brought text messages, telemedicine, video conferencing, wireless LAN and Bluetooth. Now, 5G will broaden and deepen the usefulness of the IIoT.

Much faster than 4G, 5G will improve telecommunication on several fronts. 5G will reduce the latency (lag time) so much that download and upload times will go from minutes to seconds. As a result, 5G can transmit much more data per second. Lastly, 5G can connect millions of IoT devices to a single network with efficient communication.

5G will enhance many large systems that 4G supports, such as oil rigs, wind turbines, airports and railway networks. More importantly, 5G will enable advances that earlier telecommunication technologies could not support, such as rapid machine-to-machine communication between driverless cars, different pieces of machinery in a factory and city infrastructures. 

For example, instead of accessing the cloud for geospatial information, autonomous vehicles (AVs) will communicate with each other. Such vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication will enable AVs to accelerate or decelerate in sync with one another to avoid crashes. On the factory floor, cumbersome Ethernet cables will give way to wireless 5G communication. Moreover, 5G can bring much-needed help to the management of aging utility grids and infrastructures. When a part of the grid shuts down, the ensuing power imbalance can trigger outages on other parts of the grid. The ensuing outages can then go on like falling dominoes to affect street and traffic lights, telecommunication and computer networks, public transportation lines, and even pipelines that deliver water and gas. With 5G, the grid can rebalance itself more quickly and prevent the spread of power outages. 

5G has broader and deeper industrial control applications than 4G does, and it is highly likely that 6G will see an even greater range of applications. The enhanced data utilization and transfer 6G will bring about can improve indoor positioning accuracy, global compatibility and connection among different mobile networks, and data rate affordability. 

6G will also play a significant role in unconventional applications such as holographic, tactile and human-bond communications. 3-D hologram technology manipulates light rays, as well as sound waves. 6G will be able to reconfigure a hologram’s stereo and audio aspects, making possible near-realistic images of people, events and environments. For applications such as remote surgery, autonomous driving and interpersonal communication, users will find that 6G offers an enhanced tactile experience. 6G’s role in human-bond communication may encompass detection of both organic vapors and emotions. For example, 6G can enable artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze a driver’s facial expression, screening for fatigue or drowsiness. 6G-enabled AI can also help detect alcohol on a driver’s breath. If it determines the driver is too intoxicated to drive, it can shift into autopilot, navigate the car to safety and may even shut off the car.

Technological Challenges

The integration of a faster telecommunication network, the IIoT, and industrial control systems has obvious benefits. Fewer data transfer delays mean accelerated decision-making and increased automation. However, the success of 5G or 6G will depend on the management of several technological challenges, such as cybersecurity and infrastructure building. Also, the implementation of 5G will hinge on support from governments and individual consumers. 

The increase in connectivity 5G or 6G brings about will make systems more vulnerable to threats. The hacking of large infrastructures is not new. There have been many attacks on critical systems and infrastructures in multiple countries since the early 1990s when the world was much less connected. With the increase in connectivity, hackers can breach systems remotely with more ease, damaging human lives, systems and even countries. 

Cyberattacks usually fall into four categories: hacking by individuals; code execution to alter, add or delete resources on a system; denial-of-service attacks; and data extraction to steal valuable information. According to government statistics, attacks on various industrial control systems have become more frequent and larger in scale over the past decades. Therefore, the increase in connectivity brought on by 5G and 6G has the potential of exacerbating a system’s vulnerability, making the spread of an attack harder to prevent.

A faster network will also require the construction of massive infrastructure. A 5G network requires the installation of millions, if not tens or hundreds of millions, of base stations and millions of antennae, which amount to high up-front costs.

Also, the cost of powering a 5G network will be considerable. According to data from Huawei, a typical 5G site needs more than 11.5 kilowatts, almost double what a 2G, 3G or 4G base station needs. That larger energy demand calls for significant base station energy efficiency improvements. Alternatively, we can try to harvest renewable energy, such as solar, wind or ocean waves to power the 5G network. 

The rollout of 5G needs to be even across different countries to achieve maximal effect. So far, 275 operators in more than 120 countries are testing 5G technologies and making varying progress. While most countries are enthusiastic about adopting 5G, the geopolitics between China and the U.S. and their respective allies have generated many complications. There is little agreement on how serious the security threat of using foreign-made devices is. On the national level, while the U.S. federal government is keen to promote 5G, it is also wary of potential foreign influence. Moreover, many U.S. city governments are skeptical about the 5G infrastructure and have taken the federal government to court over 5G installations. At the level of individual consumers, it turns out that their enthusiasm for 5G also varies, as many consider the 5G antennae installed on public structures “eyesores” or even dangerous to public health. 


No doubt, the faster 5G will take over most of the functions offered by the SCADA systems. The low-power sensors can be put to work in many remote locations without changing batteries for up to 10 years. Despite the various hurdles, 5G is making progress internationally. 

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the organization behind the 5G standard, completed the 3GPP Release 16 in July of 2020. This release defined the 5G “standalone” (SA) mode. This means the 5G will start to operate independently of the joint 4G/5G infrastructure. With such progress, it is expected that 5G will be deployed faster moving forward.

Many of these SCADA systems have been in place for many years. Over time, it is expected that more and more of such systems will shift to 5G and IIoT but the shift will be gradual.

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