A Streetlight to Desire

September 16, 2015 • Blog Post • By Atlantic Re:think

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IN THIS ARTICLE

  • U.S. cities pump out 111,000 metric tons of carbon a year just from public lighting, and the average municipality spends 40 percent of its utility bill on illumination each year
  • To increase efficiency and reduce costs, cities can connect streetlights to one another and to the Internet to remotely control and monitor lights

Cities around the world are reinventing themselves one lamp post at a time

 

They line every city block and avenue and are tucked down side streets and along residential roads. While we often pass them unnoticed, theres no question that city streetlights help ensureour safety while keeping our lives, communities and economies going long after the sun goes down.

 

But streetlights are also ripe for a revolution. For starters, theyre energy hogs. A city the size of Los Angeles pumps out 111,000 metric tons of carbon a year just from public lighting. The average municipality each year spends 40 percent of its utility bill on illumination, and much of that light is cast down on empty streets and low-traffic areas.

 

Thanks to the pervasiveness of digital technology and the expanding universe of the Internet of Things, whereby common devices are connected to the Internet and to one another, cities are indeed beginning to wholly reimagine lighting.We are now able to control home and office illumination from our smartphones, automating our energy usage and even setting lights to a schedule. Why shouldnt city planners have the power of light in the palm of their hands, controlling streetlights from a central dashboard or setting them to a schedule or specific function, brightening, for example, when the lights sense a jogger or an oncoming car? That vision is entirely possible today.

In a bid to reinvent light, cities are upgrading to high-efficiency LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and equipping them with sensors, enabling control from afar. But they arent just changing the light bulbs. Cities are taking an additional huge leap foward by connecting streetlightsto one another and to the Internet, creating the backbone of the smart city of the future where everything, from transportation and emergency response to security and overall quality of life, can be fine-tuned via the humble lamp post.

 

Metropolises from New York and Shanghai, to Chicago and Detroit, to Tokyo and Los Angeles and London, among countless others, have retrofitted their lights with LEDs in recent years. As they make the switch, many are taking the opportunity to equip their lights with a central nervous system at the same time, creating an intelligent lighting system through a range of sensors. "What lighting systems typically lacked [in the past] were sensors that can properly inform the lighting system", explains Bob Karlicek, director of Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. [Smart lighting] "can determine through sensors what kind of lighting needs to be delivered to meet the needs of people. This opens up a whole new way of illumination."

 

Los Angeles relamped its streets with LEDs five years ago and, in the largest project thus far of its kind, is in the process of adding smart features to 160,000 of those streetlights. Both the sensors and the web-based system that controls the lights are designed by Philips Lighting, and will allow city managers to dim lamps in the early morning hours, when theres no traffic, and alert maintenance crews to outages.

 

 

"One of the biggest benefits from people adopting the system is the ability to monitor, maintain and remotely control those lights", explains Jesse Foote, a lighting analyst at Navigant Research. "To be able to see that all in one system means that you can plan your maintenance better and pretty significantly reduce costs". According to Navigant, cities can save up to 40 percent in energy costs through LEDs but can add an additional 30 percent savings by adding smart controls.

 

As solid-state semiconductors, LEDs are uniquely similar to the processors in our computers, made of electrical components that are easy to hook up to sensors and transmitters of all kinds. And cities and companies alike are exploring how to make lights the eyes and ears of entire urban environments.

 

"The thing thats got me really excited is our future smart cities initiative", David Sliter, HPs VP & GM of communications & media solutions, said at the Mobile World Congress in the spring. [Cities] "have got sensors in their streetlightsand they can start embedding mesh Wi-Fi in those streetlights, they can start to do home security for the people in the community, and they can start doing municipality-wide security and turn the streetlight on when somebody walks by or gets within a zone."

 

The smart city revolution is pushing computing, lighting and telecommunications companies into new frontiers. For example, the simple fact that LED lights last so long is moving lighting businesses into the Internet of Things and service industries. The LED being so reliable is really changing the dynamics of how lighting companies are going to work, how the distribution is going to work and how the supply chain is going to work, explains Karlicek. Its a shift thats producing unprecedented collaborations that are arming cities with an ever-expanding range of powerful tools toward the vision of intelligent, connected public spaces.

 

General Electrics smart lighting division has recently launched smart streetlamps prepackaged with a set of sensors capable of video surveillance and weather monitoring, among other features, and is partnering with AT&T to connect its product right out of the box. Cisco, a leading global Internet connectivity company, is meshing its smart city management software with sensors and analytics provided by Sensity Systems. Lighting companies from Philips and Osram to Acuity have also developed smart lighting services and Internet of Things solutions.

 

As data begins to pour in through our increasingly connected environments, technology companies including HP are also rolling out services and solutions to help analyze, secure and make sense all of that data. The HP Internet of Things platform launched this year is one tool, targeted at communication service providers, that collects, processes and then crunches data from a citys various light-mounted sensors. GE has also launched its Predix platform, now in a pilot phase in San Diego and Jacksonville, to help city planners collect data from streetlights and then build applications off of that data, for public safety or transportation, for example.

 

As streetlights gain the ability to sense as well as actually make sense of our environments, cities that function far better are coming into view. In the smart city of the near future, lights may "hear" a gunshot or car crash and alert emergency responders as well as blink to get the attention of passersby. During natural disasters and evacuations, lights may illuminate escape routes and broadcast warnings. Or lights could sense crowd patterns that typically precede criminal activity and warn law enforcement. Or lights may simply ease our morning commute by seeing the location of a delayed bus and helping remote traffic controllers reroute the bus around traffic.

 

"These are some of the ideas people are talking about", notes Karlicek. "Once the lights can kind of sense their environment from the outside world and start to interact with other databases of information, they will be able to provide better safety and security and all these other features for peoplein addition to energy savings."

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