At the mountain-ringed Tingzikou hydropower station in Guangyuan, Sichuan province, a gigantic 5G-enabled underwater robot swims in a stilling basin, which is basically a 20-meter-deep pool or reservoir that can reduce turbulence of water flow.
Equipped with cameras, the robot will shoot pictures and videos of the pool walls and transmit them in real time to a command center, which then determines whether the walls are strong enough to withstand future floods, or if they would need repairs.
The robot is part of a 5G-powered hydropower station project jointly executed by China Mobile, China Datang Corp, one of the largest power generation enterprises, and Tsinghua University. It is the first time that the superfast 5G technology has been applied in the hydropower sector in China.
The endeavor is also part of China Mobile's broader push to promote 5G applications in traditional sectors.
China Mobile is working hard to partner with electricity, tourism, manufacturing and healthcare industries to explore where the biggest potential is for 5G to boost efficiency in real business cases and promote industrial upgrade.
Wang Haoran, an expert from Tsinghua University's Sichuan Energy Internet Research Institute, said every three to five years, or every time after a major flood, the Tingzikou hydropower station's stilling basin undergoes a thorough check.
In the pre-robotics era, workers would undertake deep dives to build a cofferdam for such checks, which were relatively inefficient, time-consuming and tended to hamper electricity supply. "Such a process could consume three to six months and cost around 5 million yuan ($748,000)," Wang said.
But 5G robots can accomplish the task in about 20 days as they obviate the need to pump out water from the stilling basin, besides doing some basic work like removing silt. "The cost of each check can be lowered to 700,000 yuan," said Wang.
5G-powered drones are also used in dam checks. By integrating artificial intelligence, big data and other cutting-edge technologies, China Mobile has built a high-precision dam surface inspection system that uses autonomous 5G drones, which can map in 3D.
Currently, workers remote-control 5G robots and drones. But China Mobile said it is working hard with China Datang Group toward unmanned smart checks of hydropower stations.
The 5G-enabled hydropower station is one of China Mobile's 100 key 5G industrial projects across 15 industries. Earlier this year, Zhao Dachun, deputy general manager of China Mobile, said, "Industrial customers demand not only large bandwidth, low latency and large-scale connectivity of 5G, but also call for efficient operations and maintenance and other diversified network capabilities."
As of September, China Mobile has built more than 350,000 5G base stations. Its 5G services are available in all Chinese cities at prefecture level and above. This has laid a solid foundation for wider industrial applications of 5G.
For instance, China Mobile has partnered with firefighters to use 5G-powered drones in rescue operations. Such drones function as firefighters' eyes in the sky, and can serve as an essential firefighting tool for people in the fire services, especially in and around urban centers where high-rises are potential candidates for deadly infernos.
Liu Dong, drone industry research director at China Mobile (Chengdu) Industrial Research Institute, said 5G-enabled drones can fly as high as 300 meters, which means they can quickly reach the height of a 100-story building. In comparison, it takes about a half-hour to fully unpack a 100-meter-high fire ladder.
Drones can also help firefighters acquire aerial information in a quick, cost-effective manner. In April 2019, 5G-enabled drones were used to help put out a forest fire in Sichuan province.
Drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and infrared detection technology were dispatched to the mountainous terrain, from where they transmitted footage of the leaping flames over 5G networks to emergency dispatch headquarters.
Responders, rather than waiting for drones to return to start processing the data, could immediately begin parsing the video with AI image algorithms, helping them better understand the crisis and concentrate rescue efforts.
Jiang Hua, head of the emergency management bureau in Zigong, Sichuan province, said 5G-powered drones have been instrumental in dealing with emergencies. In the future, the bureau will effect more measures to better integrate 5G with the existing emergency and rescue system.
But analysts said 5G-powered drones may have a limited role in putting out urban fires, given that more efforts are needed to solve policy issues and restrictions on the use of airspace, Liu said.
With 5G networks covering more cities, China Mobile is exploring how to use the technology to help upgrade the tourism sector.
It has partnered with local companies to build Mengbala, a digital-strong town in the Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture in Southwest China's Yunnan province.
Mengbala is popular among tourists who throng it in droves during the peak season and typically struggle to find toilets available for use. But, with the help of China Mobile's internet of things technologies, tourists can use an app to easily locate a nearest toilet (much like finding a rentable bicycle using apps such as Mobike or Hello). App-users can even figure the number of people lined up before a toilet, to know the approximate waiting time.
China Mobile has also built a cloud platform for the management of Mengbala, which enables smart environment monitoring, smart parking, smart hotel booking, smart ticketing, virtual reality livestreaming and other functions.
For instance, when sightseeing tour cars in the town deviate from their designated tracks or permissible speeds, the IoT chip in the cars would automatically send an alarm to the town's digital management platform, and security personnel will take corresponding action to solve the problem.
Cao Xin, an employee at China Mobile's branch in Xishuangbanna, said the company has built 13 5G base stations for the digital town. "With a string of cameras to capture the 360-degree images of the town, consumers can watch VR livestreaming of beautiful scenes such as the town surrounded by a 'sea' of clouds in the morning, even when they can not physically visit the town. That is one of the wonders of 5G-empowered tourism," Cao said.