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Tower cranes and 5G – remote control and operator safety

5G has the potential to radically change the ways in which some industries operate, unlocking not only new performance levels, but also enabling profound changes to working practices – potentially increasing access to labour while enhancing safety.

Berlin and London share many similarities. Both are vibrant cities, and home to flourishing startup communities. Both have august buildings of state, having boomed in the late 19th Century – and both have a huge diversity of museums and a rich cultural life. On a more mundane level, one can’t help but notice something else. Both have an astonishing number of tower cranes. The skyline of both cities is filled with the booms of massively tall cranes, either busy at work, or else lit up at night waiting for the next day to begin.

Both cities are going through significant levels of construction, which presents many challenges. One that may not be obvious is that there is now, apparently, an acute shortage of tower crane operators. To be fair, this doesn’t seem surprising – it’s a tough job, requiring skills, training and the fitness to ascend to the summit via a ladder each morning.

However, it is a very real problem. So much of urban construction is proceeding upwards these days, that tower cranes have become indispensable. As such, it seems there is a case for leveraging wireless technology – specifically, 5G – to enable remote operation of tower cranes, as we heard during the 5G Fuseco Forum last November.

We also heard about a similar need for remotely operated cranes in ports and freight distribution centres at Informa’s Private Networks in a 5G World event later the same month. It seems there is a surprisingly diverse array of such cranes, but skilled drivers are in short supply.

However, it’s not so much the skill of operating such a crane that’s in short supply, but the combination of the requisite skills together with the willingness / ability to sit in an elevated and claustrophobic environment all day. On the other hand, there are lots of extremely dexterous young people, with advanced motor skills who can handle a joystick. Putting such people in a nice, safe environment can help overcome a skills shortage.

This may seem something of a niche, but providing a means for wireless remote control of complex devices that may be associated with hazardous operating conditions is a highly desirable goal. It’s not that control can or should be automated – people will continue to be required to drive cranes, for example – but more that the potential hazard is reduced, and the pool of available labour increased. The same goals will apply in mines, in other extreme locations and so on. If 5G can help solve labour shortages while reducing risk, so much the better.

The interesting thing here, though, is the extent to which the specialised network to manage such solutions will be provided by classical MNOs. Some may succeed in delivering optimised solutions for the building industry or for mines, but not many will be able to do so. It’s yet another example of how the traditional operator stranglehold over the mobile community is likely to be eroded and broken, as specialists emerge, ready to tackle the needs of specific industrial sectors.

Of course, tower cranes are now just part of the fabric of any city, but in just a few years, expect the majority of crane operators to be ensconced in a warm, protected environment. And, once the labour shortage has been eliminated, for still more tower cranes to be seen on the skyline.