Bell Labs researcher’s digital twin prototype provides glimpse into network of the future

Bell Labs researcher’s digital twin prototype provides glimpse into network of the future Lelio Di Martino

We all want seamless, high-quality and errorless connectivity. But for most of us this is a luxury, and the occasional latency and disruptions are annoyances we can handle.

For others, though, this is a necessity. In mission critical industries such as mines, ports and factories, communication breakdowns can be a matter of life and death. The network must work, all the time, everywhere, no matter what.

Understanding such networks to make sure they are failproof is the goal of Lelio Di Martino. As the Nokia Bell Labs department head for Network Applications, he is tasked with looking for new applications for the network while applying the same network to solve new problems in crucial industries.

“Everything is connected, everything is critical, everything is remotely controlled,” he explained. “The network influences the operation, and the operation influences the network. So, they can’t be addressed on their own. You need a holistic approach to tackle them.”

The groundbreaking solution he and his team have developed is the network digital twin that can create, for example, a cognitive digital mine that thinks and acts on its own to boost safety and productivity in a dangerous environment.

His team will be demonstrating this new approach this week (June 3-6) in Antwerp, Belgium at the European Conference on Networks and Communications (EuCNC) and 6G Summit, one of the major global telecom conferences devoted to future communications systems and networks.

The theme of this year’s conference is “6G: From Vision to Reality,” and it fits perfectly into Di Martino’s idea of the future.

“We are driving a revolution that is changing the way that we design and control networks,” he said.

Awaiting 6G

The digital twin is a revolutionary technology that creates a virtual replica of a real-world system, processes or objects using real-time data from sensors and IoT devices. It has already found its way into mission critical industries powered by 4G and 5G networks. But it’s the future networks of 6G that will bring the truly game changing benefits.

The research Di Martino’s team will demonstrate at the 2024 EuCNC & 6G Summit lays the foundations for how to automatically create networks that can sense, think and act ahead of time to enable mission-critical communication.

The demo shows how to achieve a digital representation of the network from the point of view of each connected device in two specific use cases. The first is Vale’s autonomous iron-ore mine in Carajas, Brazil, the largest on the world, and the second is the BTP container port in Santos, Brazil, South America’s largest container terminal. Initial estimates at the mine predict an increase in productivity of up to 25% and an increase in IT operations’ safety of up to 85%.

The future 6G networks are expected to take this further by including artificial intelligence and machine leaning in almost every layer. The network digital twin will be the central element that identifies how to shape the network to predictively fit specific requirements.

It’s an approach that prioritizes each connected device rather than the overall network, sort of like a system that controls the water pressure of individual pipes rather than an entire home.

The final goal is to create self-managing, self-deploying resilient 6G critical networks built automatically around each use case that enable the success of any mission critical operation.

“We have a vision of the future where the network will follow these critical use cases in bringing capacity so that a network can be built around the specific needs of each mission and critical use case,” he said. “We are bringing a change of perspective. The network is usually controlled centrally. But here we start from how the network is experienced at the end point, which is what matters most. Our first priority is to make sure all the connected devices meet their expected service.”

UNEXT in action

This novel approach reflects the real-life adaptation of the overall vision of the Unified Networking Experience (UNEXT), an interactive operating system for the future where every element is its own entity.

UNEXT is the Nokia Bell Labs view of the next stage in network software evolution, effectively transforming the network itself into an operating system that can sense, learn, think and act ahead of any demand.

We believe it will shepherd in the 6G era by moving the physical into the digital world. It creates a network that gives the illusion of seemingly infinite capacity because it is designed on-demand for any use case, anticipating future needs and enabling their evolution. It’s a network that brings itself where it is needed, when it is needed.

Di Martino and his team are turning this framework into reality in its work in mines and ports. In such dangerous working environments that are rife with explosions and heavy machinery, he says this model could save lives.

“The uniqueness of my team is that we want to be exposed to real problems to understand how to tackle them. We really want to get our hands dirty,” he explained. “This is one of the key components of the UNEXT vision. This will be an integral part of our network because the network will operate through it and for it. It’s a new concept that we call ‘the digital twinnable networks.’”

Building things

Di Martino’s interest in science was sparked almost from infancy.

Growing up in Italy’s coastal Castellammare di Stable, he literally overlooked the ruins of Pompeii and Stabiae, the ancient Roman cities that were buried in the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

That naturally sparked many questions for a young curious mind. With his father working for the Italian railways safety critical systems there were always interesting tools around the house to play with. When he was 10, Di Martino got his first computer. Within hours, he had taken it apart and put it back together.

“Even as a child, I was exposed to how to make things better to survive critical situations. So, it was probably something that was always in me,” he added. “Since I was a kid, I always liked to understand how things worked and how to make them better.”

That translated into a science focus in high school and then advanced computer engineering and system engineering degrees from University of Naples Federico II.

At high school, he also pursued classical studies like Latin and Philosophy where he was inspired by ancient empirical scientists like Archimedes and Galileo.

“Why do we need to sit in a lab and do experiments for something you cannot really observe in a lab? he asked. “In my opinion, researchers should be exposed to problems in the field. Only then can we create new disruptive technology. That is really my philosophy.”

He was a research associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and had brief research stints in India and Portugal before joining Nokia Bell Labs in 2015, first in the U.S and then in Brazil.

That’s where he began what started out as exploratory projects in ports and mines.

“I don’t know many researchers who feel comfortable in the dirt of a mine, in a factory or in a port. I really enjoy that because it allows me to think outside the box and be exposed to problems that are still not solved,” he said. “From observation you create the theory, not the other way around.”

At home, he still likes building things with his two young daughters, and with the little down time he has left he enjoys cooking and designing new home automation projects.

“I like doing things with my hands, to solve problems,” he said. “At the end, it boils down to understanding how things work and how we can make them better to improve our life and our society. That’s the reason I’m here today at Bell Labs and not at any other place.”