Huawei X Labs trundles on, with emphasis on wireless Industrie 4.0

At Mobile World Congress this year, Huawei unveiled a demonstration with Kuka Robotics, as part of its X Labs R&D project, which was using a 5G-based system to coordinate two robotic arms playing an electronic drum kit.

The demo followed a memorandum of understanding that the pair signed at the CeBIT 2016 show, to advance the kinds of low-latency wireless technology needed for Industrie 4.0 applications.

The pair said that the MWC demo was a milestone, verifying that cellular-based real time control in smart manufacturing is achievable, with the live demonstration achieving latencies as low as one millisecond, with one microsecond clock synchronization, and 99.999% reliability.

Those kinds of figures are going to be essential for industrial applications, as the appliances relying on such wireless links are very expensive and will require communications resiliency to ensure that messages are delivered, and low enough latencies that emergency messages arrive in time – for emergency shutdowns, or evasive manoeuvres.

“5G cellular wireless technology will enable KUKA to provide robot-based production systems with even more outstanding flexibility through wireless machine to machine and machine to cloud communication”, said Stefan Lampa, CEO of KUKA Robotics. “

The connections in smart manufacturing with wireless technology will be a trend. According to the Huawei X Labs prediction, there will be over 10bn industrial connections in smart manufactoring by 2025.

Also in the industrial realm, the first X Labs round table, with GE, Bosch, Toshiba, Philips, Noitom, Continental, DNP, and CloudMinds, was held at MWC. The session discussed the future structure and direction of the project, as well as elaborating on the core focus of the group in the coming years.

Peter Cho, Huawei Wireless Solutions’ CMO, said that in 2017, X Labs would focus on “connected drones, cloud VR/AR, wireless robotics, and connected vehicles. This will be a close collaborative effort between partners around the world, aiming to push the boundaries of wireless technology, develop new applications, and unearth new market potential”.

Those four areas of focus seem to lean more towards business applications than consumer, as smart homes are pretty unlikely to adopt robotic arms or assistants any time soon. Similarly, AR has garnered a lot of interest from enterprises that have recognized the potential for hands-free displays and voice interaction – for assembly line workers, warehouse operators, and field techs that can be wirelessly sent information to boost their efficiency.

Back in November, Huawei announced the creation of X Labs – an R&D project targeting three “unprecedented development opportunities that await telecom operators in video, household, and vertical markets”. X Labs was launched to explore future use cases for the kinds of mobile technologies that Huawei specializes in, with Huawei saying an open industry ecosystem was a main objective.

In its launch statement, Huawei noted that video and images now accounted for around 60% of mobile network traffic, and while entertainment was the largest part of the market, other areas like industrial and government were brimming with opportunity – with live social media driven video becoming a huge global phenomenon. This video application will be pursued by the mLab (mobile).

As for the second main area, households, Huawei is aiming to push wireless broadband connections to the 1.3bn homes in the world that don’t have a broadband link (out of a total of 2bn homes), via the hLab project (household), Huawei says around 300m homes that do have broadband are on a line slower than 10Mbps, and is eyeing its wireless-to-the-x (WTTx) portfolio as a candidate for telcos looking to connect homes – noting that over 100 telcos had already used its WTTx products to link 30m homes to the internet.

The IoT stands out in Huawei’s third focus, vertical markets, where the company envisions mobile networks as the backbone of the digital transformation that will be driven by IoT technologies – and will be using the vLab to carry out its R&D project. Huawei believes that service providers and industry players will have to work closely in this market in order to adjust to new and complex business models.

To support these three areas, Huawei is pushing its portfolio of network upgrades, which includes the ‘cloudification’ of the core and access networks, especially the air interface it notes, as well as application-centric PaaS offerings – designed to suit the individual needs of specific applications – an acknowledgement that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all option for this industry.

X Labs has also looked at transportation, publishing a whitepaper that argues that the field is a huge opportunity for MNOs to extend their offerings, in a market that the project says could pass $140bn by 2022 – with five main strategic opportunities for the MNOs. These include usage-based insurance, fleet management, smart parking, emergency services networks, and V2X-based ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems).

Huawei notes that MNOs have to work on ensuring they don’t become dumb pipes in the ecosystem, but says that MNOs have major advantages on their sides – including huge customer bases, global service channels, and dialogues with governments and regulators, as well as piles of cash.