Comment: How 6G can make sci-fi dreams a practical reality

From autonomous vehicles to remote surgery 6G has the potential to revolutionise many areas of technology but if it's to deliver on these benefits it's vital that we take a careful considered approach to development writes Cranfield University's Professor Weisi Guo

6G will make some science fiction ideas a practical reality: urban skies filled with air taxis and delivery drones, the ability for specialists to carry out remote tactile surgery wherever it's needed in the world.

Because 6G means the possibility of near-instant interconnections between people and digital computing devices at all scales. In principle, that means a platform for delivering autonomous transport, the meta-verse, distributed machine learning, and smart cities. For industry, 6G will allow for more mobile data driven apps, such as augmented reality support: real-time inventory management via the Internet of Things; digital twins that allow organisations to test virtual models of products and their functionality at very low cost; and use Virtual Reality for workplace training as well as support for day-to-day roles.

But the stakes for the technology are much higher. With the kinds of applications made possible, safety and reliability are critical. In other words, there's no room for any lags and glitches when it comes to tons of autonomous vehicles flying regularly over our heads, or a remote scalpel working inside our bodies. 

There’s an essential need for any organisations planning on taking advantage of 6G that there’s a foundation of trust — not only in the functionality of the technologies, but more widely in terms of public perceptions and attitudes. It’s a problem, given the current climate of doubt when it comes to the use of ‘smart’ autonomous systems, cars or motorways. A BBC investigation in April claimed smart motorways are regularly affected by a loss of power, compromising safety.

Cranfield is a partner to the UK’s CHEDDAR project, a Communications Hub for Empowering Distributed Cloud Computing Applications and Research, alongside the project lead Imperial College London, and Durham, Glasgow, Leeds, and York — and this includes ‘AI-as-a-service’ in 6G, linking together common needs and uses across networks to improve speeds and reliability. And, critically, how to ensure safety in an age of autonomy.

At the heart of the issue is the human element, how we interact with AI and autonomous systems. One research team at Cranfield’s Centre for Autonomous and Cyberphysical Systems, for example, is looking at how to best support people in their use of autonomous vehicles, on the ground or in flight, and develop an interface that limits confusion and stress when things go wrong. So rather than a chain reaction of one problem leading to another, there is clear support for human users.

Another project is addressing one of the most complex areas for 6G communications: managing airspace to allow for urban air mobility and the integration of conventional aircraft alongside the new entrants such as flying cars and delivery drones. Constant, uninterrupted sharing of data between sensors and autonomous management systems is vital. A resilient comms ecosystem that can cope with the complexity needed — as well as having the intelligence to spot and respond to abnormal or malicious behaviour by vehicles like drones — is under development. 

An underlying issue for 6G tech in the UK is time and location information. The UK, like much of the world, relies on open services for time information: a network of satellites known as the global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). These services are known to be vulnerable in many ways. There are regular GNSS failures because of signals being jammed (intentionally and unintentionally) and spoofed; when there are satellite and receiver system errors, cybersecurity issues, and when there’s the wrong kind of solar weather.

The University is working on a new, nationally distributed time infrastructure, that will provide the UK with its own sovereign capability to disseminate time and positioning data — establishing a basis of independence and resilience. We are one of three UK institutions acting as national timing innovation nodes (alongside Strathclyde and Surrey universities) with an atomic clock synchronised to Greenwich Mean Time, run in partnership with the National Physical Laboratory. Cranfield’s particular role has been on developing and refining the process for sending time information wirelessly, and to end users who are either static or on the move — making use of a software defined network (a faster and more flexible means of managing and running a network of hardware). In this way there is a basis for the biggest, complex multiple systems operations, like dealing with fleets of autonomous vehicles in the air.

6G has the potential to deliver a wide range of benefits to society, a step change compared with past generations. It’s a fundamental stage when it comes to human and machine interaction and our willingness to fully trust and believe in technology. This isn’t the time for rushing into quick fixes. Only through careful, nuts-and-bolts research will we be in a position to realise 6G’s potential.

Professor Weisi Guo, Centre for Autonomous and Cyberphysical Systems, Cranfield University.