Industry Insight: From 5G to Li-Fi, blockchain to AI – it’s engineers who are transforming the world in which we live
A few years ago, at a conference in London run by the technology giant National Instruments, I was lucky enough to catch a couple of memorable presentations that really blew me away.
The first looked at collaborative efforts to establish 5G, the next-generation mobile networks that, it was claimed, would dramatically increase the speed at which data could be wirelessly transferred. Some of the numbers being discussed were amazing: 1-10Gbps connections to end points in the field, 1 millisecond end-to-end round trip delay, 99.999% availability and 100% coverage.
But it was the impact on the consumer that really resonated. 5G would allow full HD movies to be downloaded in a matter of seconds, with response times so quick that instead of waiting for a movie to download before it could be watched, play would begin instantaneously. And because of the substantial improvements to speed and latency, the user would have the perception of limitless bandwidth and continuous availability, wherever they were. It was pretty amazing stuff.
Then a professor came on to the stage to talk about the seemingly dry subject of visible light communications. Li-fi, as it was called, turned out to be an astonishing means of using common household LED lightbulbs to enable data transfer, boasting phenomenal transfer rates. The speaker explained that by switching the current to the LEDs off and on at a very high rate,too quick to be noticed by the human eye, light bulbs could effectively act as wireless routers. Wow.
Both presentations seemed too good to be true. At that time, most digital natives were still revelling in the performance of their new 4G handsets. The power of 5G – a truly heterogeneous end-to-end network environment that could support a wide range of devices - seemed a distant aspiration. And Li-Fi appeared to be such a radical concept that it almost had the whiff of bad science about it.
Fast forward to the current day, though, and any doubts about 5G or Li-Fi have long since gone away. 5G technology has been developed to such an extent that initial networks could be rolled out as soon as 2019. Indeed, the UK government is so excited by the potential of the technology that it has invested £16 million in a 5G development hub to accelerate its introduction. Li-Fi, meanwhile, is also moving from research labs to the real-world, after pilot studies showed that it could be used to send data at up to 1GBps - more than 100-times faster than standard Wi-Fi technologies.
These advances didn’t happen by themselves. 5G and Li-Fi are both the manifestations of collaborative toil from talented engineers. Since that conference, technical teams from all over the world have - quietly and without fuss - been making incremental steps, taking these promising technologies on transformative journeys from smart ideas towards commercial realisation.
It’s the same with other innovations that promise to change the way we live our lives. Blockchain digital ledgers, autonomous cars, artificial intelligence – you name it. In each and every case it’s a story of resourceful people embarking on a voyage of discovery for the betterment of mankind.
Looking back, that conference in London was as a memorable marker in the sand. As I sat listening with a sense of astonishment to the presenters on the stage, it was the day that I realised that engineers are the unsung heroes of the modern world. And I’ve fervently believed it ever since.
Author: Lee Hibbert, Industry Analyst and Content Director, Technical Publicity (Editor of Professional Engineering, February 2010 - January 2016)
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