Traffic jams. Parking problems. Pollution. Crime.
Cities face lots of tough problems. Although mayors and city managers are well aware of the issues, they often lack the resources to create effective solutions. And it’s not just a budget problem.
The information that administrators use to make decisions is often incomplete and scattered across departments. Consequently, they can’t see the big picture. Nor can they measure the results of their efforts.
But new solutions are emerging from the unlikeliest of sources — the humble streetlight.
From Streetlight to Smart Light
If you put sensors on a streetlight, it morphs into an “intelligent light” with capabilities Edison never dreamed of. Intelligent lights help cities gather information that officials can use to deploy services efficiently, save money, and run cleaner and greener overall.
Current, a smart energy startup within GE, is using intelligent lights to illuminate a new way forward. By combining GE’s data analytics know-how with Intel’s secure computing expertise, Current’s streetlights reveal the state of city services and show how they can be improved.
“We’re going to transform the streetlight from a pole that sits 30 feet up in the air to a sensor beacon,” said Austin Ashe, global product manager of intelligent cities at Current.
The lights contain built-in sensors including cameras, thermometers, and humidity gauges, as well as a powerful Intel processor. Information gathered from the lights is sent to Predix, a GE cloud-based platform that instantly crunches data and sends the city actionable results in real time.
San Diego is one of the first cities to take advantage of Current’s technology. Like most urban areas, the city suffers from traffic jams and parking problems. By using sensor-embedded LED streetlights to improve parking enforcement, the city reduced traffic by up to 30 percent and saved more than $350,000 annually in energy and maintenance costs.
San Diego and other pilot cities are just the start. In the future, data from streetlight sensors could automate and connect city systems in new ways, solving once-stubborn problems with little human intervention.
“The city will be able to sense itself through our technology,” said Justin Christiansen, global accounts manager at Intel.
Because streetlights are ubiquitous, intelligent lights can create a dense sensor network that allows data to be collected and used to benefit residents in ways that were never possible before. For example, information from intelligent lights could reroute ambulances to get to emergencies faster, possibly saving lives, Christiansen said.
Sensors might also reveal problems city managers don’t know about, such as dangerous street corners where accidents have yet to occur, but where sensors show cars barely avoiding collisions. Alerted to the problem, city engineers might make changes to prevent accidents.
And, not only can these lights collect information, they can also broadcast it. Equipped with speaker systems, they’re able to sound alerts before a hurricane or an earthquake.
Streetlights Can Even Help Fight Crime
Current is working with ShotSpotter to create streetlights that can detect the sound of gunfire and send the location of the incident to police stations, dispatch centers and officers’ smartphones. Cameras in the streetlights can take photos automatically when a shot is detected, helping police identify suspects.
Although ShotSpotter has been around for years, putting the technology into streetlights instead of single-purpose sensors enables cities to expand its presence at minimal cost.
A Peek Inside the Lights
Pumping data to the cloud can be expensive, particularly for bandwidth-hungry applications such as video. To get around this problem, the streetlight itself can do initial processing of sensor information. This activity is known as edge processing because it occurs on the fringes of the network.
The importance of edge processing was one factor that led GE to partner with Intel. The company’s processors have the performance to handle tough edge processing applications such as computer vision. The robust performance also helps future-proof the platform — meaning cities won’t have to replace their streetlights when their needs grow.
GE also worked closely with Intel to ensure cities can perform software updates and other maintenance remotely — even across hundreds of thousands of streetlights.
GE’s lighting is engineered to be highly secure, with information protected from the edge to the cloud. The strength of this security is evidenced by the fact that Predix is already being implemented by nuclear power plants and health care facilities.
Because sensor-gathered information is stored securely, the platform can safely support open data initiatives. These initiatives can unleash creativity in communities — anyone from a local business owner to a smart high school kid can code an idea into a solution.
And cities don’t have to worry about these solutions stressing the system. Predix was built for the IoT and can digest extraordinary amounts of data, Ashe said.
Getting everything connected is similarly worry-free. Intelligent streetlights can be programmed to connect automatically with any available communications network — cellular, wireless or satellite.
Smarter Lights, Smarter City
With the addition of sensors, streetlights can be the backbone that supports city departments, helping them deliver services efficiently, cut costs, increase revenue, enhance safety and solve environmental problems.
As Christiansen said: “Yesterday, your lighting fixture was a light bulb. Tomorrow, the possibilities are endless.”
When humble light fixtures are outfitted with sensors and connected to the cloud, they can unleash truly brilliant ideas for cities, buildings and factories.