What is a Smart City?

A city is made up of millions of assets, ranging from streetlights to traffic signals to garbage cans in the park.  A significant amount of a city’s budget is spent on maintaining these assets, so any additional assistance can have a huge impact on the budget. 


A smart city utilizes technologies such as IoT (the Internet of Things) to provide real-time updates on the status of those assets, such as a key light being burned out or an unexpected change in the volume of traffic.  This information helps in the short-term, as it allows for better real-time decisions to be made, and in the long term, as it allows for better planning and resource allocation. 


The result is a city that is safer, has more reliable resources and offers better services to its residents. 

Why Do We Need Smart Cities?

Every year, cities and regions are being asked to do more with less resources.  This is further complicated by the fact that many cities have aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced.  Smart cities give civic leaders the ability to better utilize the resources they have to offer better services to their residents. 


This means better coverage for first responders, cleaner parks, reduced vandalism and more, all while reducing the cost of service. 

What types of technologies are used in a smart city?

The first part involves the collection of key data from assets.  In some cases, such as determining the flow of traffic, sensors are used to gather key pieces of real-time information.  In other cases, the device itself (such as a streetlight) may have the ability to report its status by using means that are built into the device. 


The second crucial step is the communication of these key pieces of information.  It may be using the city’s own landline or Wi-Fi network, or it may be using a wireless technology, such as the cellular network, to transmit the status of key items. 


The third step is taking this information and making it “actionable” by the city staff.  This may be in the form of a text-based alert, it may be an alarm sounding at a monitoring centre or a team member pulling up real-time charts from a secure web page.  In any case, the data has been transformed into a form that allows action to be taken. 


The final step is the ability to use the data to highlight recent and historical trends.  The data can be “crunched” in a way that allows finance teams to understand the true costs of a project, as well as to allow leaders to determine the priority of key projects. 

A Smart City leverages technologies to keep the city clean, running efficiently and ready to serve citizens at all times.

Smart back-up generators and batteries for emergencies 

Cities often operate many key systems that need to be up and running, even during the time of a power outage.  To ensure things keep working, cities deploy a wide range of power backup solutions, ranging from battery clusters to diesel-powered generators.  However, those systems do require time-consuming maintenance to ensure they are up and running. 


IoT-based systems allow cities to have a real-time view of the status of these devices.  They can be alerted if a battery falls below a certain capacity or if there is a low level of fuel in the tank, ensuring systems work as needed.  In the case of the diesel system, they can also start/stop the device remotely to ensure that all systems are charged.  Finally, in some cases, the power units are mobile, so GPS-based monitoring of the systems can help reduce both theft and time to find them during a crisis. 


The result is a reduced cost to upkeep these devices, better historical data to schedule replacements and a reduction in theft of key consumables like diesel fuel. 

Smart Garbage cans in parks and tourist areas 

Two scenarios are very common in the world of garbage pickup, being that the garbage did not need to be picked up or the garbage container was overflowing and should have been picked up earlier.  These problems are compounded in some areas, such as parks, where garbage removal may be difficult or costly, or the city wants to minimize the disturbance.  This is where smart garbage cans can help. 


The cans, using built-in solar panels for power, can use an internal compactor to maximize the space inside of the container.  As well, the power is also used to operate a capacity-monitoring system that alerts when a container is getting close to being full. 


The result is less unnecessary pickups / overflowing garbage cans, as well as a reduction in waste removal costs.  The garbage can itself is part of an overall ecosystem that includes software that alerts teams of the status. 

Sensor-based irrigation systems to reduce unwanted water use 

Many cities and regions are doing what they can to reduce their impact on the environment. Including their use of water on public areas.  Few things look more foolish for a city as when their sprinkler systems are running just after a recent rainstorm, or worse, when it is raining.  This is where smart systems can help. 


They first start by sensing the level of moisture in the water in real-time.  This information will factor in variables such as the recent ambient temperature, humidity levels and amount of recent rainfall to better plan the amount of watering required.  As well, rain sensors can detect any current rainfall and reduce/shut off any watering currently being done.  Finally, weather forecast data can be used to predict future watering needs for an area. 


This reduces the use of water, especially during times of low rain, as well as ensures that areas are not over or under watered. 


Smart highway on-ramps 

If you live in a city, you likely spend some time in rush-hour traffic.  At a certain point, gridlock may be inevitable, but one way that cities are using IoT to reduce it is to better control the access on the on-ramps.  The theory is simple; if you better control the flow of cars coming onto the highway during peak hours, it will keep traffic moving better.  So, a minute spent on an on-ramp may save several minutes on the highway. 


The system uses sensors to detect the current flow of traffic on the highway.  It will allow for real-time decisions to be made, such as in the case of an accident causing a back-up during a time period of normally low volume.  This is far superior to systems based solely on historical data, although that may be factored into some decisions. 


The result is often a dramatically reduced commute and at a much lower cost than adding additional lanes of road. 

Water pipe monitoring 

At your home, a leaky faucet or pipe can result in a large amount of water being wasted.  The problem is greatly exaggerated when the issue is at a high-volume pipe that is part of a city’s water delivery system.  Unfortunately, this is a problem that every city sees, resulting in millions of gallons of fresh water being lost. 


Smart monitoring systems use sensors at key points to determine the amount of water that is being lost during the delivery.  This information both helps to reduce the amount of water loss as well as to act as an early warning for a potential sinkhole or other major disaster. 

A major category within a smart city is public security. IoT, through various methods, allows for real-time data to be gathered, delivered and analyzed to allow security professionals make better decisions.  

Analyzing audio feeds for gunfire 

There are two main issues that police face when it comes to the sound of gunfire being reported by the public.  The first is that there are some other sounds that can be mistaken for gunfire, such as a car backfiring or some power tool use.  This means that there are often a number of false alarms that can occupy key police resources. 


However, the larger issue is often that in some high crime areas, gunfire is not reported at all.  By using audio sensors that are tuned to the frequencies of gunfire, police can be notified and can respond.   Going one step further, the sensors can often detect the difference between normal and high-powered weapons, allowing them to respond to a threat accordingly. 


The result is a lower number of false alarms as well as a higher reporting of gunfire in high-crime areas.  It also results in a higher level of public/officer safety. 

Thieves need to be aware of bait cars …. 

In most cities, car theft is a continuing problem.  While car manufacturers are finding ways to prevent theft each year, criminals are equally adept at keeping pace.  This is why bait cars have become increasingly popular in most cities.  The use of IoT allows for police with a new tool to catch car thieves in the act. 


Like it sounds, a bait car looks like a normal car parked in an area.  The difference is that the car is equipped with a combination of video surveillance, GPS monitoring and the ability to control functions of the car remotely.  If a thief breaks into a bait car, they are recorded on video and the video is transmitted to a remote center.  The officer can then lock the doors to prevent the thief from leaving until they arrive.  In some cases, the officer may choose to let the thief drive away with the car and stop them at a location that is less crowded. 


The result is a reduction in theft of cars from key areas, as well as the ability for officers to monitor more cars at a time than they could if they were in a traditional stakeout scenario. 

Use of video surveillance to replace police stakeouts 

While they may be a mainstay of Hollywood movies, police stakeouts are a very costly way to monitor a particular location.  For many, the use of video surveillance provides an equally effective method that may reduce cost and improve officer safety. 


Cellular communications, combined with battery-powered solutions, allow for systems that can be set up quickly and put in areas that do not have access to power.  In some cases, they are fitted to look like a window-mounted air conditioning unit.  These systems can be set up to record any movement in the target area but can also alert if certain doors/windows are opened (based on a range of pixels changing). 


The result is a lower cost for police stakeouts combined with a higher level of officer safety. 

The smart city is increasingly employing ways to reduce the amount of pollution in the air, water and on land. Further, the same IoT technology can be used to pre-empt pollution to ensure it does not happen in the first place.

Monitoring of rivers and streams 

Many cities have large rivers and streams running through them.  In fact, this was sometimes the reason why the early settlers chose a particular location.  However, increasingly these water sources are causing damage to nearby homes and businesses during times of floods.  As well, many form the basis for the drinking water in the area, so monitoring them for possible contaminates is vital. 


IoT solutions can easily do both.  Sensors can be used to alert, in real-time, to a possible overflow of a river.  This allows for the opening of key run-off areas, the closure of waterfront walkways and even to trigger an evacuation alert for nearby areas. 


Similarly, sensors can monitor for water acidity, contaminants and the level of flow for a particular location.  This allows for the instant alert to a possible issue to drinking water, an alert to someone exceeding their allotted draw of water or to automatically reduce water usage to restore levels to the required levels. 

Pollution monitoring 

Similarly, to the monitoring of the water we drink, many areas are looking to monitor the air that we breathe due to high levels of air pollution.  IoT sensors can be used, in conjunction with some smart personal devices, to let cities know when pollution levels are at a dangerously high level. 


From a city standpoint, many area using sensors to pick up the levels of contaminants in known trouble areas.  This may include the area close to a major highway, a series of factories or in areas where people may be more susceptible to pollution, such as retirement communities.  While the solutions may not themselves prevent pollution, they can alert the public to let them make better decisions, such as staying home during peak hours. 


Interestingly, cities are working in conjunction with some personal devices to gather an even higher level of information.  Many people are using pollution detecting solutions that allow them to track the level of air pollution in their particular area.  Some of these applications allow for users to anonymously share this data in real-time with their city, to allow them to have even more data to make decisions. 

Post monitoring of contaminant sites 

During the time of use, sites such as factories and toxic storage sites often use advanced monitoring systems to ensure they are in compliance with regulations as to air and water pollution.  However, after these sites are no longer in uses, many are abandoned.  This means that they are no longer being monitored to see if they are causing any environmental issues. 


Mobile monitoring stations, both on the ground and in the water, can be easily set up to continually monitor the immediate area surrounding the former site.  This ensures that those in nearby neighbourhoods stay safe. 

Utilities are a major component of the smart city. Again, monitoring is used to prevent theft and waste, track usage and mine for efficiencies in the power grid.

Catching energy theft

Criminal operations, such as drug grow-ops, often attempt to steal power from the grid to avoid detection.  Besides the danger of working with a high-voltage live wire, it also raises the cost of electricity for everyone.  Utilities are using sensors and gateways across the network to detect the theft of energy, as well as thermal sensors. 


The use of smart grids and meters allows the utility to have a good understanding of the amount of electricity that is current being sent to a particular area, as well as to see the amount of information being billed.  When there is a discrepancy, they can often narrow it down to a particular area.   


This is where the use of thermal cameras can help.  Most grow-ops use the majority of the property as growing areas, and they generate an extreme amount of heat.  By using the imaging, they can see which homes are meeting this criterion and turn over the information to the police. 

High-speed monitoring of the power grid 

One of the major issues with the power grid structure deployed in many areas of the world is the fact that a single issue can affect massive amounts of the grid, often shutting off the power for millions of people.  One of the issues was that the time window to control an issue was often too small for utility to contain the issue. 


High-speed equipment allows for the use of sensors/monitors to detect faults in the network.  Using very high-speed communications, they are able to prevent the issue from spreading too far, thus limiting the impact of a potential outage. 

Remote connectivity for key front-line workers 

Utilities have large crews that are often dispatched out to perform both routine maintenance as well as to make emergency repairs.  In many cases, the crew is well informed as to the location they are going, having access to key information such as drawings and the required safety gear prior to leaving their base.  However, in the case of emergencies or changing situations, this is not always the case. 


The use of in-vehicle computing is not new to the fleets that area operated by utilities.  However, the higher level of data speeds offered by today’s cellular networks have allowed them to gain access to an increasing amount of information that improves their decision making and their level of safety.  Finally, the new deployment of dedicated cellular networks (called FirstNet in the US) ensures that key front-line workers have access, even during times of very high network use. 

Dry Pond monitoring 

Many flood-prone areas will use dry ponds as overflow areas in the event of a heavy rainfall or high river levels.  These ponds, which are usually lower than the surrounding areas to create a basin effect, are often used as soccer/play fields during most of the year.  During a time of a heavy rainfall, they could become full of water and pose a safety threat.  


The combination of sensors and alerting technology allows for these ponds to be safely used yet provide sufficient alerts to avoid any potential injuries.  When the sensors record that the fields are starting to pool significant amounts of water, it will both set of an alert locally as well as to send a signal to dispatchers to alert of the situation.  This maximizes the use of land in areas while preventing unwanted flooding. 

Residential meter reading 

As cities attempt to increase their level of environmental friendliness, many are looking at ways to reduce power consumption in homes.  One way they are doing this is through the use of automated meters.  These meters are able to report both the real-time usage of electricity for the home as well as a daily report.  That information is then sent up to the municipality overnight. 


Based on the information that is received, utilities can better understand the usage patterns of homes in particular areas, which allows for better grid planning.  The information can also be shared with the homeowner, to allow them to make better decisions as to their power use. 


Electric car plugs 

One of the long-term concerns of many power companies is the adoption of electric cars.  More specifically, their fear is that everyone will come home at 6 o’clock on a hot summer day and plug their cars in, causing an excessive demand on an already taxed grid.  IoT solutions help to ease some of their fear. 


The use of smart home chargers allows the utility to better balance the level of energy that the grid is demanding.  Upon arrival at home, the driver is shown several options for the charging of their car, based on when they may need to use the car again.  If they do not need to use the car until at least the next morning, the system will alert the driver that they can save money by having the car start its charging cycle in the middle of the night, when power usage is much lower. 


In the case of extreme demand on the grid, a utility can go one step further and put a maximum charge level (say 70%) that a car may be charged to, to allow everyone to get some charge on their vehicle. 

Infrastructure monitoring 

In many parts of the world, there is a huge demand to repair key infrastructure such as bridges, dams and key pipes.  However, there are limitations as to how quickly this can be done, such as financial concerns, the availability of workers and materials and the ability to close down key areas.  As such, municipalities are looking to monitor key infrastructure to best plan their work. 


Harmonic and vibration sensors are being deployed on key structures to constantly monitor their structural integrity.  A change in the sound of a bridge, as an example, may indicate a new crack or weakening, while extra vibration in a pipe may show that a brace needs to be replaced.  This allows the city to better plan its approach to maximize their return and minimize the chance of a major issue. 

In-road speed alerts 

This idea came from the concept of an hourglass.  The flow of sand through the opening is maximized when it is a consistent pace, not when one tries to excessively force sand through.  The same principle is applied to a major freeway during a major accident or construction project. 


By slowing down traffic well in advance of the site of the issue, a reduced number of cars will approach the area.  This allows for a more consistent flow of traffic, which speeds up the rate of travel through the site.  The drivers are alerted to slow down thanks to indicators that are placed on the highway. 

Traffic diversion 

Many areas use bridges to connect parts of the city or to another city.  In many cases, there are environmental issues that can cause the use of that bridge to be unsafe.  These include an avalanche in mountain areas, high cross winds or a high-water level.  While many cities use alert systems via cellular phones, the bottleneck here is often the reporting of the issue to divert people from using the structure. 


The use of sensors can first detect an issue that could require diversion.  It would first alert drivers who are both on the structure as well as those who are close to using it to clear the structure as soon as safely possible.  Next, it would activate a control mechanism (such as a gate) to prevent anyone else from accessing the site.  Finally, an alert could be sent via cellular phones to allow drivers to plan their new route accordingly.