How Tiny Sensors and Big Data Will Transform Cities



The smart city movement looks to address urban challenges ranging from pollution and civic maintenance to traffic and public health by applying sensors, data analysis and predictive technology on a wide scale. The revolution in the infrastructure necessary for these smart cities is bigger than any single technology. When infrastructure elements — from road surfaces to street lamps — are replaced and upgraded, they will be fitted with multi-function sensors, including video cameras, sensitive microphones, weather gauges, and traffic flow monitors. These data sources will work in concert to help utilities, transportation providers, and public safety bureaus deliver higher quality services.


The Internet-of-Things (IoT) revolution that makes it possible to embed low-cost, wirelessly-networked computing devices virtually anywhere will play a huge role. And these devices won’t just work as stand-alone solutions — they will be integrated with each other to collaboratively solve problems, independent of central servers. Next-generation cellular and public WiFi networks will ensure that these devices have enough bandwidth to communicate effectively.


Smart cities can reduce waste, improve mobility, and give citizens a better and more livable environment. It’s a technological challenge on a massive scale, and no one computing platform will have all the answers. Companies like Turtle and Hughes’ partner Cisco are already helping design smart, connected communities, but there is more work to be done.


“The size of the mathematical problems — and the number of variables to solve — in smart cities is really, really large,” says Anurag Srivastava, associate professor at Washington State University and director of the Smart Grid Demonstration and Research Investigation Lab. “Solving them has to be both automated and decentralized. You basically need the equivalent of Uber or Airbnb to operate a smart city.”

Smarter Power Solutions

To become a smart city, communities need to respond to the new reality that the nature of power production and consumption has radically changed. Industrial sites — and even individual homes — can act as both consumer and small-scale producer. Smart city power grids are designed to enable peer-to-peer power distribution. Such solutions reduce waste by moving power production closer to consumption whenever possible.


“In the past, consumers would set demand and the grid would provide power. But now, consumers own solar panels — and even battery storage — and can participate in the grid and provide power to neighbors,” Srivastava says. “The city’s software and hardware will need to know what is connected, who is producing, and how we can best share it.”

Smarter Sensors Working on Complex Problems

One of the shining examples of the smart city revolution is Peña Station NEXT, a new community in northeast Denver. This high-tech neighborhood is built around brand-new infrastructure that employs sensors to promote smarter resource allocation and reduced waste. The first full-scale residences won’t be finished for another year, but the community is already using detailed energy and water consumption tracking to help city planners. Aiding the community’s expansion will be a local energy grid and battery backup that improves energy efficiency by distributing more of it closer to the source, and street lighting that powers up only when people are nearby.


In other communities, sensor-equipped street lighting gathers information that helps municipal service providers better maintain roads in wintry conditions by providing actual road surface temperatures to dispatch, and helps direct drivers to optimal parking spaces using real-time occupancy data. Smart city parking lots can reduce emissions and congestion by guiding drivers to the closest available parking lot. When combined with mobile payment systems, these parking lots reduce inconvenience to drivers as well.

The Unique Role of Vehicles

Much smart city research focuses on building better public transportation networks and on making cities more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. However, the automobile will still play an important role in the smart city and will be a key focus of new services. Researchers are focusing on smart traffic detection systems, which could reduce CO2 emissions by 50 percent and improve arrival times by as much as 70 percent.


As the industry moves away from internal combustion engines and towards electric vehicles, there will be growing pressure on electric grids and an increasing need for energy management. Peak and off-peak pricing models are already used to help smooth electrical demand. An international research team found that optimal power distribution models can be created for smart cities without changing price by collecting information about departure time and expected drive distance from each vehicle. The same vehicles can join smart grids and supply power while parked and not in use, another coordination task for smart city infrastructure.


Vehicles themselves may evolve as a direct result of next-generation road design with embedded power coils providing wireless power transfer for on-road charging. Vehicles would receive energy through contactless electromagnetic coils in the vehicle and embedded in the road.


However, such cars are unlikely to unseat today’s hybrids — or gasoline-powered vehicles for that matter — any time soon. “Wireless electromagnetic power has high losses compared to direct, wired transfer, so a lot of other things need to happen before we get to mature wireless power transfer,” Srivastava says.

Healthier Citizens Through Heightened Awareness

Another vision for smart city infrastructure calls for increased awareness of health conditions, both acute crises and chronic threats to population health. The acute model envisions the smart city as one where personal sensors as well as nearby devices can identify serious threats to life, even if the victim is unable to call for help. “The city would be one big LifeAlert, and could react immediately to health alerts,” says Diane Cook, professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University.


Citizens are already very eager to use mobile tech to improve health, so this may be the most sought-after smart city upgrade of all. A Ketchum survey showed that 58 percent of Americans with a smartphone have already used mobile tech to communicate with medical providers, and 47 percent of Americans with a smartphone have a fitness or health app of some kind. “People already download apps that monitor healthy behaviors and suggest behavioral interventions, such as changing a route to avoid polluted air,” Cook says. “Smart cities can be more proactive about anticipating such issues and helping people avoid them.”


Smart city health monitoring could be achieved much sooner than other infrastructure projects, because so much of the groundwork has already been laid. Cook describes the next step as allowing and encouraging people to opt in and combine personal health telemetry collected by a smartphone or wearable device with sensors that could be installed on city streets as well as smart utility meters. “We already have a huge range of sensors at our disposal to monitor healthy behavior in the community,” she said. “Mapping that to the city level will help city service providers and designers respond.”


The global opportunity in smart city infrastructure is enormous. India alone is expected to spend $150 billion on its smart city overhaul. So far, federal commitments in the United States have been less ambitious — $165 million, according to a recent report. As the cost of smart devices continues to fall and researchers propose increasingly valuable solutions to improve health outcomes and reduce waste, watch for those figures to climb.

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