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Intelligent Lighting Platform Is the Key to a Smart City

By Sohrab Modi, CTO & Senior Vice President of Engineering, Echelon Corp. [NASDAQ:ELON]

Sohrab Modi, CTO & Senior Vice President of Engineering, Echelon Corp. [NASDAQ:ELON]

What Does the Internet of Things Mean to Cities?

The term Internet of Things (IoT) has become a buzz word in the technology industry meaning different things to different people making it difficult to find one, single definition. A common misconception is that what works for the consumer will automatically translate into the industrial/commercial world, but in doing so we lack the tools to actually quantify costs and business benefits.

Perhaps our ability to define IoT rests on being able to clearly demonstrate the Return on Investment (ROI) to the enterprise customer. Deriving value from these “things” is predicated on the ability to connect them. Once the ROI is clear, IoT can be the catalyst for advancements in business, healthcare and government – specifically municipalities. One such advancement that IoT can fuel is the smart city.

What is a smart city? It depends on who you ask. However, from a business perspective, we can all agree that it’s about Sustainability (energy, heating/cooling); Security (police, fire, cameras); Broadband (WiFi, fiber); Traffic, Transportation and Parking Management (locating vacant spaces); Asset Tracking (RFID); and eGov (electronic documents and approvals). Mayors and city administrators face an array of possible solutions with vague and varying ROI. But even if the definition of a smart city were clear, the path to get there is not.

While city leaders have many choices (which is nice), it’s also the cause of confusion.

It’s important that they get it right the first time because they have immediate problems to solve with finite budgets and cannot afford to rip & replace in the future. They can’t risk deploying the most popular, emerging technology that could end up being more time consuming and costly than the benefit it offers. They also need to maximize ROI by leveraging certain technologies and infrastructures they already have in place. The return needs to be steady and continual over a long period of time–even decades. This goal may sound unattainable, yet it’s highly realistic because every municipality has the linchpin to a smart city. They just don’t realize it yet.

The Street Lights are the Blueprint for Creating the Smart City

Streetlights are everywhere. City lights are already a vital infrastructure for most cities. Present on nearly every street corner, roadway and parks and recreation areas, they create an opportunity to touch every resident and visitor. Connecting street lights together is analogous to having an IoT spider web across the city that enables a pervasive infrastructure. It’s the streetlights and an intelligent street lighting platform that create a beachhead to a practical and powerful transformation of a smart city. The landscape is quickly and constantly evolving with emerging technologies, applications, protocols, etc. Deploying costly broadband to future proofing the city is no longer the only option for connectivity.

When a city retrofits street lighting to take advantage of the energy savings available with LED, connected lighting control technology extends the initial benefits to include improved public safety, reduced maintenance and costs, better health, enhanced quality of life and environmental comfort.

For example, with a connected, LED street lighting system, city managers can dynamically regulate the amount of potentially unhealthy blue light emitted from outdoor lighting. This has been the subject of many headlines since the American Medical Association (AMA) issued its policy statement about the harmful effects of outdoor high-intensity, LED lighting on humans and the environment.

The AMA guidelines put forth a recommendation for communities to control blue-rich lighting to reduce glare and discomfort. A connected, LED street lighting system gives city managers the power to adjust streetlight color from soothing warm yellow to bright blue-white based on activity levels, time of day, weather and events. Dimming and brightening levels can also be adjusted with a simple key stroke to aid visibility for first responders and security professionals.

The ideal strategy is to deploy lighting controls for a pervasive network so that devices and sensor scan be placed almost anywhere. The platform becomes the nervous system for access to an ocean of untapped data from these devices, or the “things” in IoT. Enormous amounts of data can be collected, analyzed and acted upon to make more informed decisions. Increasing the number of controls expands the services delivered by the lighting control platform which decreases the time to ROI. It satisfies both political (safety and comfort) and budgetary (sustainability and operational efficiency) requirements. For example,

Safety services include:

• Brightening or strobing lights in response to an emergency call box activation
• Controlling crosswalk flashers on the fly for unscheduled early school dismissals, delayed starts and ad-hoc events
• Adjusting light levels based on accident history at certain intersections
• Adapting both color and light level based on weather

Comfort services include:

• Changing the color of the white light based on activity levels, time of day, weather and events
• Using Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques to create better traffic flow during rush hour or to locate vacant parking spaces
• Customizing light levels to the preferences of the residents in specific neighborhoods

The platform also becomes a conduit for integrating other devices, data and applications so that municipalities can seize the promise of IoT. This not only gives city leaders a valid reason to implement a connected LED streetlight infrastructure due to its clear and rapid ROI, but it also lays the foundation for solving future city problems. Just a few years ago, did you ever think that you’d need to find a charging station for your car? It’s difficult to predict the municipal challenges that will need to be addressed in 10 years.

The Intelligent Infrastructure Serves the City for Years to Come

With the addition of intelligence, connected street lighting offers a catalyst for change. A pragmatic approach to transforming into a smart city lies with the ability to integrate a wide array of functionality onto the street lighting platform, which depends on the platform being open, extensible and secure. Leveraging open-standard control networking technology, a multi-application, extensible platform makes it easy and affordable for municipal leaders to increase the efficiency and versatility of their outdoor lighting systems.

Cities across the globe are embracing the opportunities presented by the smart city platforms, from creating safer neighborhoods, to preserving the night sky to attracting more business and tourism. The advanced yet cost-effective infrastructure lets city managers glean insights and intelligence they can use to continue to improve public safety and enhance quality of life for years to come.