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NTT and NEC use vibrating optic fibres to figure out if there's snow on the road

Japan’s short of workers and limiting overtime, so it needs stuff like this – and remote-controlled excavators


Japanese tech giant NTT has shown off some tech tricks it hopes will help alleviate the shortage of workers created by the nation’s ageing population, and looming regulations that restrict weekly working hours.

One of NTT’s experiments relies on using optic fibre that’s already in the ground as part of comms networks as a sensor, a feat made possible by the fact that shooting lasers down a fibre can detect and locate nearby vibrations. NEC provided that capability using a system it’s developed that can detect the speed of passing traffic. NTT and its Japanese neighbour used a correlation analysis to detect when snow had fallen in Aomori City, home to around 250,000 people near the northern tip of Honshu, Japan’s largest island.

Using vehicle speed info, plus the vibration frequencies correlated with different road surface conditions, the two companies were able to detect when snow had fallen and make recommendations to have it cleared.

Such recommendations are valuable because assessment of road conditions is currently only made during daylight hours, and labour shortages mean there aren’t enough people available to assess whether it’s time to fire up the snowploughs.

Workers are especially scarce in Japan’s rural areas, some of which are experiencing population declines.

NTT and NEC therefore suggested the results of their tests are promising, and will conduct further experiments in other locations to advance the tech.

Acting alone, NTT has tested remote control of construction machinery, using its All Photonics Network to connect an excavator cockpit at one of its offices to actual excavators at a remote site, with the final connection between the fibre network and diggers using an unspecified wireless tech.

The network beamed back 4K video with 500msec delay, a span of time deemed sufficient for a remote operator to work safely.

Again, NTT thinks the results are sufficiently promising to try the technique on more sites.

Another motivation for the tests is a law that, when it comes into force in 2024, will limit the amount of overtime that construction workers are allowed to perform each year. NTT reckons one way to reduce overtime is removing the need for equipment operators to travel to building sites. Even if its other efforts have ensure the route is free of snow. ®

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