On the Road to Smart Cities

LED streetlights can act as the ‘nervous system’ for intelligent cities. A glimpse of what may be possible

On the Road to Smart Cities
LED streetlights can act as the ‘nervous system’ for intelligent cities. A glimpse of what may be possible

By Rick Freeman

Every city has its share of challenges—some major, some minor, some easily addressable, others difficult to control. Each city’s situation is different, but on a grand scale, the costs of these recurring challenges add up. For example, cities are struggling to address costs associated with:

  • Growth: Population is expected to double in some cities by 2050, and Euromonitor International predicts that 60 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas within the next decade.
  • Unpredictability: Weather variability costs the U.S. economy approximately $485 billion annually, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and traffic congestion alone costs the U.S. economy $100 billion each year, some estimate.
  • Maintaining infrastructure: A report from Groom Energy found that $8 billion a year is spent just on street lighting in the U.S., and infrastructure is aging across cities of all sizes.
  • The environment: 138.5 million people—almost 44 percent of the U.S.—live where pollution levels are too oft en dangerous to breathe, according to an American Lung Association study.

It is easy to dismiss some of these items as outside of our control. Aft er all, how can you control the weather or anticipate exactly how long it will take to commute? Increasingly, though, technology can help mitigate some of these challenges. The answer lies in smart infrastructure deployments and resource optimization that pave the way to intelligent cities.

Turned on to LEDs
According to a 178-city survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 73 percent of cities have already deployed LED streetlights and 81 percent have plans for future LED streetlight projects.

Connectivity is growing at an astounding pace, and cities need to consider how they will adjust—and ideally benefit—if they have not already. An estimated 50 billion machines will be coming online by 2020 as the Industrial Internet and Internet of Things are progressively adopted. As a result, we will soon be measuring data in exabytes (one billion gigabytes), instead of terabytes, and cities must be prepared to handle the massive scale of data being generated by human and machine-to-machine connections. This rapid rate of expanding connectivity may seem daunting, but if cities are ready for it, it can mean major opportunities for operational efficiency.

One specific area where connectivity has an opportunity to play a major role is with lighting. LED-based streetlights, specifically, are being tapped for an expanded role in connectivity. These often overlooked pieces of urban infrastructure are actually the ideal starting point for an intelligent nervous system for a city, as LED fixtures can be fitted with outdoor wireless control systems that enable these lights to “talk” with a server relatively easily. Varying sensors can be integrated into control nodes and data can be relayed effectively because every streetlight acts like a wireless signal repeater, allowing light posts 1,000 ft apart to reliably communicate. The result? Operational improvements and energy savings through utility-grade metering, asset management, remote dimming control for every fixture and much more.

Energy and operational efficiency is just the beginning, though. Lighting will soon be able to detect or adjust to environmental factors like human activity (or lack thereof), air quality issues, noise, seismic activity and additional ambient conditions to benefit citizens and city operations in ways many have never considered.

In an intelligent city, cloud-based operating systems will leverage LED streetlights to offer completely new control, service improvement and revenue-generating opportunities. Some of these possibilities are already being tapped; others are still aspirational, but feasible. Included here are a few examples of what we could see.

1. Lighting
Probably the most obvious place to start is with lighting. Interconnected LED streetlights offer a host of benefits over traditional street lighting technology, including:

  • Efficiency: LED streetlights can save 20–50 percent on energy costs over older technology, and 50–70 percent on maintenance costs due to long lifespans.
  • Dimming: Some municipalities have installed basic light sensors to allow streetlights to detect when to turn on based on ambient lighting conditions, but they could be going further. For instance, streetlights could be programmed to gradually dim to a lesser percentage of brightness in the middle of the night, and then brighten when commuters hit the road. Alternatively, motion sensors can allow streetlights to be extinguished or at least dimmed in unpopulated areas.
  • Real-time monitoring: Connected lighting can also convey valuable information about its status in real time, allowing city workers to make more informed decisions. For instance, streetlights could report energy usage statistics, enabling cities to move toward metered (rather than flat-rate) tariffs for streetlight energy usage with local utility companies. Lamp posts could also report maintenance needs, allowing workers to pinpoint where problems occur and to prepare to address them efficiently with the right equipment.

2. Parking
Cities are already investigating how intelligent streetlights can act as parking monitors, detecting whether parking spaces are occupied or not. There are several useful ways this information can be employed:

  • Metering: Better understanding of when vehicles are occupying parking spaces can allow cities to optimize the way they charge for street parking. Economists have espoused the benefits of charging parking rates based on demand for street spots, time of day and other factors, but cities have lacked the infrastructure to implement this. With streetlight-based sensors, however, the data needed to put such a system in place is more readily available, which could boost parking revenues for cities.
  • Driver notification: Lamp post-based sensors could also feed information into a database regarding which spots are open and which are not, allowing drivers to more eff ectively find a parking spot. Drivers could make more informed decisions about whether to valet park, park a few blocks away or even put a short-term reservation on a parking spot for a fee, if a city wanted to employ that functionality. Such a system not only reduces driver frustration, but it could help cities address pollution related to vehicles searching for parking all day. In the same way that sensors could tell enforcers that meters are expiring, they could also alert citizens of this fact via mobile device.

3. Emergency Services
Weather-related routing of first responders is one benefit made possible by connected LED streetlights, but there are other ways emergency services could benefit:

  • Crime detection: Cameras integrated into streetlights can help police determine where criminal activity might be happening without requiring officers to be on-site. Also, new sensor technology allows us to go a step further. Gunshot detection is now possible through sensors from companies like ShotSpotter, allowing automatic notifications for police whenever gunfire takes place in an area. These technologies enable smarter police deployments, and faster response to dangerous situations.
  • Better dispatching: Besides obstructions, streetlights could also detect traffic volume and other issues that could delay emergency vehicle response to critical situations. Sensors and cameras could allow dispatchers to determine the best routes for emergency vehicles to take and the severity of a problem (a fire or car accident, for example) to better determine what amount of aid to send. Integrated push-to-talk systems built into light posts could also be used to help gather information in emergency situations.

4. Weather
We may not be able to control the weather, but we can use intelligent lighting infrastructure to gather information about it and make more informed decisions. Examples include:

  • Pollution monitoring: Sensors can detect air pollution levels throughout the city, allowing for identification of sources and planning to mitigate
    air quality issues. Citizens can be informed of current air quality levels and can plan accordingly, as well. With connected street lighting, this information can be gathered in many more spots to create densely concentrated data for more accurate and consistent measurements.
  • Street obstructions: Severe weather can cause flooding, heavy snow, downed trees and other obstacles that can hinder or halt traffic in certain areas. With connected LED street lighting, however, flooded streets and other obstacles can be identified to allow better traffic routing and driver notification. When there is heavy snowfall, cities can use sensors and cameras integrated into streetlights to more strategically deploy plowing vehicles across the city.
  • Allergen detection: In the same way that pollution can be monitored, allergens can also be detected in specific areas. This information can be gathered and relayed to residents, allowing them to make more data-driven decisions about when to take allergy medicine and so forth.
  • Natural disaster response: Sensors in streetlights can detect seismic activity and atmospheric conditions, and cameras can allow first responders to better understand where damage or obstructions have occurred, hence planning their responses better. Citizens can be relayed important information about evacuation routes and trouble spots based on this data, and they could even be warned of danger over public address systems built into light posts.

These are just a few ideas of how interconnected LED streetlights could help usher in the age of intelligent cities. The world is only at the beginning of this intelligent journey, and we are already seeing some of it play out in progressive cities worldwide. If you represent a city that could benefit, start thinking about how you could be one of the pioneers defining where this connected future will take us. To some extent, we will only be limited by our imaginations.


Rick Freeman

Rick Freeman

Rick Freeman is general manager, intelligent cities, for Current, Powered by... More info »