How 5G creates smarter buildings with digital twins

By Ming En Liew

Associate Professor Evelyn Teo, Director, Centre for 5G Digital Building Technology, NUS College of Design and Engineering, on how 5G can create smarter buildings sustainably, and train up a 5G-savvy workforce.

An office building in Germany automatically adjusts the lighting and temperature of each workstation to the worker’s preference. Another in the Netherlands assigns workers a different desk daily based on their schedule. Buildings are getting smarter, and a new research centre is looking to push those boundaries further.

The Centre for 5G Digital Building Technology is exploring how 5G can improve the way people “design, deliver, and manage Singapore’s built environment,” said Centre Director, Associate Professor Evelyn Teo. This research centre is an initiative by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Department of the Built Environment.

Teo shares how the Centre will further 5G applications such as digital twins in the real world, and train up a new generation of 5G experts.

Using digital twins to create smarter buildings 

5G’s ability to provide minimal lag time and process immense amounts of data enables the use of technologies like digital twins in smart buildings. Such technology was previously limited by the capabilities of 4G.

With digital twins, security teams can remotely monitor the building for intruders. Once an intruder is detected, they can send robotic dogs to inspect further.

Digital twins can improve building sanitation in the same way, says Teo. Sensors will identify areas that require cleaning and automatically send disinfection robots to the affected areas – all without human intervention.

Additionally, digital twins can give the construction industry a boost by reducing cost and improving safety at construction sites, wrote NUS.

These are possible with a digital twin platform which remotely monitors the location and activity of various devices. The platform displays data from physical sensors and consolidates it into one central hub for humans to control and perform specific tasks.

Beyond buildings, digital twins can also help cities manage waste levels, highlights Teo. Authorities may be able to automatically detect the location of waste bins that are filling up and dispatch trucks to clear the bins.

Thousands of sensors need to be connected city-wide and monitored in real time for intelligent waste monitoring to work. Such extensive projects will only be possible with the data capacity and minimal lag time that a 5G network can provide, explains Teo.

Training for the next generation

On top of supporting the facilities management industry, the Centre serves as a training ground for students to familiarise themselves with 5G and its related tech.

For instance, students and industry professionals will be able to work with 5G-enabled tech such as VR, AR, and mixed reality. They can also get hands-on experience with other digital building technologies that use 5G, like video walls and holographic displays.

“It is a good learning ground for our students to be exposed to real-world scenarios and tools, where we can better nurture them into leaders of our smarter built environment,” said Professor Lam Khee Poh, Dean of the NUS School of Design and Environment.

Furthermore, 5G enables the use of all-in-one VR or mixed reality devices without them being connected to a desktop. Previously, VR devices required massive data capacity and minimal lag time to run, which mandated the use of desktop-based VR devices.

With all-in-one VR devices, industry professionals can receive virtual training for risky tasks remotely, reducing costs and improving safety. For instance, workers in oil refineries may train to respond to crisis situations like a fire without putting their lives at risk.

Sustainable development of tech 

While 5G-enabled tech holds much promise, there remains the problem of carbon emissions. Testing and developing 5G-enabled technologies typically consume immense amounts of energy.

The 5G Centre is housed within Singapore’s first net-zero energy building. This means that the building releases and captures equal amounts of greenhouse gases, making it carbon neutral. Being in this environment encourages researchers to design their programmes in a way that meets net-zero requirements, explains Teo.

Researchers seek to conserve energy in two ways, says Teo. The first is to develop tech which supports the 5G applications and makes them more efficient. For instance, the targeted disinfection system comes with AI that helps the disinfection robot take the shortest possible path to the disinfection area, saving energy.

The second way the Centre achieves energy savings is by finding ways to integrate different types of tech to maximise energy efficiency. While designing the digital twin platform, the Centre explored methods to reduce the energy consumption of their robots, AR/VR devices, drones, sensors, and video cameras.

The Centre also works with its telecommunications partner, M1, to ensure that the heat generated as a result of the 5G network is within set guidelines for a net-zero building, says Teo.

Buildings today are no longer just tall slabs of concrete which house people. Instead, they play many roles of personal assistants, security systems, and sanitation workers. With 5G networks opening up new possibilities, it remains to be seen how much smarter buildings can become.