Creating the future internet, where the speed of light isn’t fast enough

In the future, human skills will be digitalised and democratised via the Internet of Skills: a future internet that will enable you to use robot technology and haptic feedback to transfer expertise in real time, no matter where you are, and no matter where the problem to be solved is.

For example, imagine a highly specialised surgeon who performs a tele-operation on a patient thousands of kilometres away in which, although a robot is moving the scalpel, the operation feels just as real for the surgeon; as if she were actually moving the scalpel with her own hands.

This vision however is not possible today. This is because recreating the sense of touch using forces, vibrations or movements on the user, and thus ‘fooling’ the skin and body into believe that what we are touching in the virtual world is real, requires a network with sub-millisecond delay. Networks with ultra-low latency and ultra-high bandwidth, in which operation command and haptic feedback take place end-to-end with a maximum delay of one thousandth of a second.

Such extremely low latency limits the maximum communication distance to only 150 km, even under ideal conditions. Light cannot travel any further when information has to move backwards and forwards between human operator and remote slave robot within the latency bound.

“Enabling real-time transmission of haptic sensation over the Internet will potentially allow diverse physical operations without humans being physically present. This will pave the way towards the envisioned Internet of Skills which will better disperse and democratise skills and expertise among people, regardless of gender, age, and other diversities. This can reduce the amount of travel and associated CO2 emission. However, the required level of immersion is unattainable over long distances at this stage. Hence, novel solutions are needed to address the challenges,” says Associate Professor Qi Zhang from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Aarhus University.

Qi Zhang is heading a new research and development project called the eTouch, which aims to overcome the physical limitations of today’s telecommunications. The aim is to create immediate response, regardless of distance, so that haptic feedback can be perceived by the user without noticeable delay, even though the communication is at a distance of thousands of kilometres.

To solve this problem, the team will leverage Model-Mediated Teleoperation, in which  a virtual model (a digit twin) will accurately describe the remote environment, and which locally generates the haptic feedback instantaneously instead of transmitting it over long distances.

However, it is quite challenging to create an accurate model and make effective and reliable model updates in real time with the current data-processing paradigm. Therefore, the team will use Edge Computing paradigm.

The team will therefore include world-class experts in the fields of edge computing, tele-robot technology and machine learning from the Technical University of Munich (TUM), the Technical University of Dresden (TUD), Aarhus University and industrial stakeholders, including the tech company Rope Robotics.

Nevertheless, the team will not be focusing on tele-surgery, but rather industrial applications with relatively simple operations.

“Realising our vision entails great challenges, so we have to start from the basic operations and take small steps at a time. But if our method works, it could be ground-breaking for the internet of the future and enable the spread of the tactile internet over intercontinental distances and perhaps even in space,” says Qi Zhang.

The Danish company, Rope Robotics, is developing robots that can replace the manual labour that is currently required to maintain and repair wind turbine blades.

The goal is a robot system that can crawl around on the wind turbine blades and clean, grind, polish and paint them without human interference.

“It’s important for us to have close contact with the leading universities in the world and to be an integral part of the latest research within our field,” says Martin Huus Bjerge, CEO of Rope Robotics.

He continues:

“We consider the Internet of Skills as one of the biggest trends of the future, and we’re looking forward to working together on this project. It’s very exciting, and it may have a major impact on the robot technology we develop.”

The eTouch project, which stands for Edge Intelligence for Immersive Telerobotics in Touch-enabled Tactile Internet, is being supported by the Independent Research Fund Denmark with DKK 2.9 million. The project will start in 2022 and run for three years.

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