Researchers at Virginia Tech paint a futuristic portrait of 6G in a new report out this week.
Walid Saad, associate professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, who is lead author of the report, sees a future of autonomous networks, connectivity in 3D space and aerial drones.
There’s plenty of debate over what 6G will look like and even whether it’s too early to begin speculating on its features. Most industry experts, including Saad, anticipate 5G to last at least a decade, and that 6G technologies won’t emerge until the 2030s.
While the technology and its applications seem far off, Saad said research should begin now.
“The development of a wireless cellular system generation requires a decade of research, and early-on visions are important to drive that research,” he said in a news release. “This is what my group has been doing across various projects, each of which constitutes one component of 6G.”
Saad told FierceWirelessTech, “We expect 6G to provide a major revolution from 5G on various fronts."
Saad and the two other report authors, Mehdi Bennis and Mingzhe Chen, predict that 6G will leverage artificial intelligence (AI) across protocol stacks to become an autonomous system that can self-configure and be self-sustainable. They speculate that 6G could use AI to “replace traditional, rigid frame-structures that are used to manage the system with intelligent and adaptive protocols.”
“We anticipate 6G to be completely AI-reliant, across all protocol stacks and across network functions,” Saad said.
The report predicts 6G will offer even higher data rates than 5G, potentially reaching one terabit per second, with low latency and high reliability. Such data rates could be used to support new wireless applications in virtual and augmented reality, the authors said, and will likely spur researchers to look for more spectrum at higher frequency bands. 6G may be used to support connected autonomous systems, ranging from autonomous vehicles and drones to advanced robotics, “extended reality” and haptic communication.
“The primary function of 5G (as was the case for all previous ‘Gs’) is communications,” Saad said. “6G, instead, will be able to deliver additional services to users; such as sensing, control, imaging/mapping and localization. These functions will be needed to support autonomous systems.”
The authors see an end to the smartphone era and the beginning of a new communications age in which 6G can supply connectivity to surfaces—rather than devices—and can support multi-sensory applications. The report predicts the emergence of cellular implants that could replace smartphones.
“In the 6G era we will witness a move toward communications with surfaces and with wearables and implants,” he said. And with the possible emergence of things such as wireless brain-computer interfaces, “6G will be able to learn and adapt to its human user.”
Finally, the authors expect wide-scale deployments of drones worldwide will drive 6G to support aerial users and use cases involving moving through three-dimensional space. The report speculates that 6G could become the first cellular generation to integrate ground, aerial and satellite networks.
"Architecturally, 6G is likely to be a ‘3D’ system in which ground and flying drone users and base stations will co-exist,” Saad said.
As research into 6G begins, Saad said 5G will see multiple “incremental evolutions” that will “occur by reusing principles of 5G and will naturally lead to important benefits to end-users.”
“This is analogous to how 4G evolved,” he said. “For marketing purposes, some companies may call such advances "6G," but that would not be the 6G we are anticipating.”