Sixth generation wireless networking is still years away from commercial availability, but industry groups are prepping a specification that includes an unusual application to provide 6G wireless sensing of objects and people without the need for conventional sensors.

Today, Wi-Fi can scan a room using triangulation and multiple access points to find people or objects, but 6G is expected to rely on mmWave frequencies that enable far more accurate and dense scanning than Wi-Fi does. Using mmWave is more like police or airplane radar using low power that can sense what’s nearby with radio wave reflections off those objects directed back to the transmitter, explained Jack Gold, founder and chief analyst at J. Gold Associates. Or 6G carriers could set up triangulation from cell towers.

“6G sensing could be useful in cars or with IoT and smart cities types of devices,” Gold said.  “Now remember, 6G isn’t real yet so even though people talk about 6G sensing, the devil is in the details. We’ve talked about wireless sensing before on other technologies, like wideband, but that never really took off.”

Business models and use cases for 6G sensing are quite different from models that use location information gathered from a phone or IoT device, said Monica Paolini, founder and principal analyst at Senza Fili in comments to Fierce Electronics. As a result, the business models and use cases will be very different from those using location information.

“This is an entirely new use of the wireless signal and one that does not require any additional cost in terms of infrastructure, because it just piggybacks on existing networks. In the industry we are still trying to figure out how to use it and how valuable it will be. I think it will be hugely valuable to individuals and enterprises but will take some time to sink in—which happened to Wi-Fi too.”

As for top use cases, Paolini believes the indoor ones will be adopted first to track elderly, recovering or disabled kids and pets. “You would get an alert if your elderly parent does not get of bed in the morning,” which would be offered by a  service or healthcare provider, she said.

Home security would be another application. “More generally, 6G sensing allows you to track the movement of objects and things without the need for cameras, so it’s less expensive, reduces privacy concerns and can track motion throughout the environment,” Paolini added.

Infrastructure vendors like Qualcomm or Huawei would stand to benefit from 6G sensing “as long as we get a good standard that allows interoperability across vendors,” she said. A standard that includes 6G sensing might end up being like NFC where many devices have it and vendors benefit, “but it won’t be life-changing,” Paolini said. “The biggest economic benefit will go to the service and application providers who develop services that use 6G sensing.”

Efforts underway by many players

Qualcomm is among the large companies exploring 6G wireless sensing. The company has conducted advanced research over the last two years with a demonstration of mmWave in 2022 that used 28 GHz spectrum to sense objects outdoors, including a metal box, according to Danny Tseng, director of technical marketing for 5G Advanced and 6G for Qualcomm.

Qualcomm has been following “very early-on research” that has come up in standards groups, he told Fierce in an interview, including 5G-3GPP release 19 work (which was described in a recent Ericsson blog) as well as  the IEEE Communications Society for an “Integrated Sensing and Communication Emerging Technology Initiative.” 

As early as late 2022, Qualcomm had laid out its views on the evolution of 5G Advanced to 6G where integrated sensing was mentioned alongside AI and other objectives.

The focus of 6G sensing looks at higher frequency bands, mmWave and sub-terahertz, but mainly in the 140 GHz range, Tseng said. “The higher the band, the more granularity it’s going to provide.  We’re trying to understand how the spectrum affects its results…with different configurations such as the network working with devices or the network by itself.  There’s a whole bunch of stuff we’re trying to do.”

Qualcomm’s work could eventually result in a chip that is incorporated in a radio transmitter, but “there are multiple discussions on how to do it.  It could be the network uses just its infrastructure to do the sending,” Tseng said. One real world example: if there is foliage between a base station and a device being sensed and the tree gets taken down, engineers might need to use a different beam-forming algorithm.

“RF sensors are one of many sensors that could be used, but it’s kind of one tool in a toolbox,” Tseng said. Sensor fusion could be a good approach. “Most of the discussion is within 5G and 6G as a way to improve network performance with what’s around a base station…Within the telecom industry, there’s interest in using sensing as an insight to improve the network.” One question is whether 6G sensing on every base station would be better than a camera on every base station.

“We’re still very early in terms of 6G,” Tseng said. “It’s five years from there being real commercial devices and networks, but it’s not too late to talk about [sensing].”

In addition to major players in 6G such as Qualcomm, Ericsson and Huawei, there is also a sensing initiative of ATIS (Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions) called Next G Alliance, designed to advance North American wireless technology leadership. ATIS has 150 member companies and recently published a 24-page report noting that Integrated Sensing and Communications (ISAC) “provides an opportunity to create a future where the boundaries between sensing and communication are blurred and where the seamless interaction between humans, machines and the environment can lead to a more harmonious and sustainable existence. “

The report concludes on a broad finding that joint communications and sensing “requires tight coupling among sensors and the communications network” where artificial intelligence will play a “critical role.” Innovations will be required to make future chipsets, devices and networks, the report adds.

In October 2023, Nokia announced a 6G Lab in Bangalore, India, to research “Network as a Sensor” technology to allow the network to sense objects, vehicles, people and movement without needing dedicated sensors.

For its part, Interdigital also outlined a vision for 6G sensing in a November blog that recognizes the role the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU’s) emerging vision for 6G where integrated sensing and communications (ISAC)   “is expected to be a new, revolutionary features of 6G, alongside integrated AI and communication and ubiquitous connectivity…”  The European  Telecommunications Standards Institute also has a specification group focusing on ISAC.

One feature of ISAC that some carriers may not realize: it will “not likely have backward compatibility constraints because the approach will require new signals introduced in 6G who structure and numerologies aren’t part of the current 5G NR paradigm,” Interdigital reported.

One skeptic on the business value

Clearly, 6G sensing is in its early days, but plenty of research and discussion is underway by major players and international standards groups, although it is difficult to assess the level of business interest in it.

One analyst is fairly unimpressed, so far, about its business value.

From a technical standpoint, the idea seems “feasible” to use 6G for dual purposes–to send data and also to detect objects, Joe Madden, founder and chief analyst for Mobile Expert, told Fierce.

“However, from a business perspective, I have not found any customers who are asking for this feature,” he added. “It’s not important to enterprises that they should get their location or sensing from the same radio. So I view this concept as a feature created by engineers because it’s cool, not because its needed.”

Madden said he is a “neutral observer of the market” who doesn’t promote any particular new technology idea. “In this case, I don’t think that sensing will be a killer app that will drive anyone to 6G.”

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