How 5G Networks Will Create a New Era of Connected Logistics

How 5G Networks Will Create a New Era of Connected Logistics
7 min read

Since its introduction, 5G has quickly become the hot topic of every industry, and for good reason. By 2025, 5G networks are expected to cover one-third of the world’s population, and a 5G economy study found that by 2035, 5G could potentially enable up to $13.2 trillion worth of goods and services and create up to 22 million new jobs.

But what exactly is 5G, and why is it going to make such a difference in the way the world works? You might remember that with 3G, or the third generation of cellular technology, mobile data has been pushed forward, and 4G brought in a new era of mobile broadband. Now, 5G — the fifth mobile generation — will usher in the highest mobile connection speeds and lowest latency rates ever recorded. The new levels of connectivity created by 5G have the potential to impact nearly every industry, making fully-remote healthcare, smart cities, digitized logistics, and more into a way of life.

In fact, 5G could be the technology that finally pushes the entire logistics industry into the full digitization it needs. Nearly 90 percent of logistics and shipping providers say that the lack of supply chain visibility is one of the biggest challenges in the industry today, and another study found that 85 percent of shippers and consignees surveyed believe the industry is either “slow to change” or “far behind the curve.” Yet 5G networks will have the power to change that, creating a massive new framework for connected logistics technologies, ranging from IoT to real-time tracking and autonomous vehicles. In fact, a Gartner report has revealed that two-thirds of organizations plan to deploy 5G by the end of 2020.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the areas in which 5G networks will have a major impact on connected logistics over the next few years. 

IoT & Telematics

According to DHL, IoT is already estimated to open up a US$1.9 trillion opportunity in logistics. This is only bound to increase as 5G networks become more widely used: For every meter of coverage, 5G is able to support over 1,000 more devices than 4G, and at speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (10Gbps), or 100 times faster. Meanwhile, freight and cargo trucks will have the opportunity to use 5G telematics to create vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications. These technologies allow vehicles to communicate both with each other and also with the infrastructure such as traffic lights or road management systems.

Current 3G and 4G IoT devices tend to be more power dependent, as they are constantly switched on and off. Yet battery-powered IoT trackers using 5G will also be much more energy-efficient, automatically going into sleep mode when they aren’t relaying information. This will enable them to live for much longer, increasing their ability to monitor key supply chain metrics such as location, temperature, humidity, light, shock and more. 

Real-Time Tracking & Enhanced Visibility

It is estimated that $2.5 billion is lost every year to revenue leakage in the trucking industry alone. Once again, the lack of real-time visibility in the supply chain is one of the leading causes of these losses. IoT devices connected to 5G networks will also save the day in this regard, eliminating the “black holes” of the supply chain wherein currently, logistics companies aren’t able to track vehicles or packages in real-time in 100% of cases. These transit dead-zone areas have become one of the biggest tracking issues faced by logistics companies today.

While packages are checked in at their starting points at manufacturing plants or warehouses, very little real-time information about the journey exists after that initial log. By using 5G for amplified geolocation technology, IoT devices would gain the ability to deliver live information to systems that could, for the first time, follow most items from the factory to the customer. With this data in hand, logistics companies will be able to provide live status updates, understand where potential delays may come in, optimize their fleet routes, and forecast the exact moment the package or vehicle will arrive at its destination.

Remotely-Operated and Autonomous Vehicles

Einride, which is developing one-to-many control of semi-autonomous vehicles, demonstrates remote driving of its Pods

One of the most exciting 5G features is its extremely low latency: data can be transmitted with a lag time of just one millisecond — a whopping 50 times faster than 4G. This feature will be a key factor for autonomous trucks, drones, and delivery robots on public roads or in warehouses, where every millisecond matters. Naturally, the faster an AV can make an intelligent decision, the safer these autonomous operations will be.

The timing for 5G connectivity couldn’t come at a better time for AVs: At this point, most automotive companies are already deep in the midst of developing and testing different types of autonomous vehicles for assorted purposes. Commercially, car companies such as Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, BMW, and nearly every other major manufacturer have already announced dedicated teams in their race to create autonomous driving systems for the public.

Meanwhile, within the logistics sector, companies are working to create reliable and safe AVs that can aid in warehouse and transport operations. The intelligent truck startup Einride has created a 5G-powered truck called the “T-pod”, which is completely autonomous but includes the capability to be remotely controlled by a human operator. Equipped with cameras, radar, and 3D scanners, the T-pod has 360-degree awareness of its surroundings — and thanks to 5G, can react to its surroundings within milliseconds. Many trucking companies are also exploring driverless trucks for long-haul journeys that can drive up to 10 hours at a time, which will relieve pressure in the upcoming truck driver shortage.

AR and VR for Maintenance and Repair

Connected Logistics
Picture Credit: VertexVR/DHL

One of the most costly areas of logistics can come from the maintenance and repair of vehicles and machinery. If machines are down for long, it can halt entire processes or mean a decrease in process efficiency. Thankfully, new technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are already being explored for their major potential for transforming the way logistics companies do maintenance and repairs. Now, combined with 5G, the outlook for these technologies is even better.

In warehouses, reduced lag time created by 5G will allow real-time updates on cargo movements, improving the experience and reliability of AR applications being used in daily operations. Additionally, inter-equipment AR communications could also allow warehouse robots and other automated machinery to optimize routing around the physical space. According to a 5G expert at Verizon, 5G could allow singular coverage for a large warehouse, rather than using several short-range 4G wireless options to cover the whole area. AR can also be integrated into vehicles to provide safer trips and better endpoint recognition.

Meanwhile, beyond warehouses, VR applications could allow fleet mechanics to offer roadside assistance from a different location, decreasing unexpected downtimes and increasing overall efficiency. A combination of augmented reality with VR also has the potential to create smart seaports by connecting port engineering teams through mobile broadband, offering mobile access to construction plans and installations just by using AR/VR goggles or tablets onsite.

A New Framework for Connected Logistics

The logistics industry is already leaning into new technologies and data-driven business operations. With the implementation of 5G networks in logistics, an entirely new framework can arise. As data speeds travel faster than ever before and latency levels reach their lowest points, technologies like IoT devices, telematics, AR, and VR can all reach their full potential to help the connected logistics and supply chain finally become fully visible in real-time.

To keep up, logistics companies should start considering where these technologies can be implemented within their own processes. If there are gaps or dead zones in your supply chain, where can IoT devices be used to fill the gaps and increase visibility? If you’re managing a warehouse, where can robots aid your human employees? If your vehicles are down for too long for maintenance and repairs, how can that AR or VR help reduce that time? Soon enough, 5G will be everywhere we look — and companies that take advantage of it now will surely contribute to building a bright future for connected logistics.

Transmetrics Demo