Faster Than the Speed of Light: Overcoming the Physical Limitations of Today’s Telecommunications

A team of researchers and industry specialists from Aarhus University will use a grant from the Independent Research Fund Denmark to try to tackle the basic problem that the speed of light is just not fast enough for the Internet of Skills.

The Internet of Skills is a future internet that will allow you to use robot technology and haptic feedback to transfer knowledge in real-time, regardless of where you are or where the problem to be solved is.
Consider a highly specialized surgeon doing tele-surgery on a patient hundreds of kilometers away, in which the operation appears as genuine to the surgeon as if she were wielding the scalpel with her own hands, despite the fact that the scalpel is being used by a robot.

Physically impossible

However, this ambition is currently unattainable. This is because replicating the sense of touch on the user using pressures, vibrations, or motions, and therefore deceiving the skin and body into believing that what we are feeling in the virtual world is real, necessitates a network with sub-millisecond latency. Operation command and haptic feedback occur end-to-end with a maximum delay of one thousandth of a second on networks with ultra-low latency and ultra-high bandwidth.

Even in ideal conditions, such low latency restricts the maximum communication distance to to 150 kilometers. When information must go back and forth between the human operator and the distant slave robot within the latency constraint, light cannot travel any longer.

“ 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 democratize 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 of Aarhus University's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Digital twin

Qi Zhang is the leader of the eTouch, a new research and development initiative aimed at overcoming the physical limits of today's telecommunications. The goal is to generate a quick reaction, independent of distance, so that the user may receive haptic feedback without delay, even if the communication is hundreds of kilometers away. 

The team will use Model-Mediated Teleoperation to overcome this difficulty, in which a virtual model (a digit twin) precisely describes the distant environment and produces haptic input locally rather than over vast distances.

With the existing data-processing paradigm, however, it is very difficult to develop an accurate model and make effective and consistent model modifications in real-time. As a result, the team will employ the Edge Computing model.

Industrial applications

As a result, the team will feature world-class specialists in edge computing, tele-robot technology, and machine learning from the Technical University of Munich (TUM), the Technical University of Dresden (TUD), Aarhus University, and industry partners such as Rope Robotics.

Nonetheless, the team will focus on industrial applications with relatively basic surgeries rather than telesurgery.

“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,” Qi Zhang adds.

One of the biggest trends of the future

Rope Robotics, a Danish startup, is creating robots that will replace the physical labor necessary to maintain and repair wind turbine blades.

The objective is to develop a robot that can crawl about on wind turbine blades and clean, grind, polish, and paint them without the need for humans.

“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 Independent Research Fund Denmark is funding the eTouch project, which stands for Edge Intelligence for Immersive Telerobotics in Touch-enabled Tactile Internet, with DKK 2.9 million. The project is set to begin in 2022 and will last three years.
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