The humble and unassuming streetlight pole can be a guiding light in a smart city transformation when enhanced with an array of technology-driven safety innovations.
Visionaries see the potential to use interconnected technology in countless ways to provide unfathomable possibilities in the smart cities of tomorrow.
Those grand visions, however, sometimes can gloss over the immediate needs required to power and support future progress.
“If you think of the city as a platform for enhanced functionality, it’s always going to be internet-based or cloud-based,” says David Rowe, a project manager at Burns & McDonnell. “You cannot do that without building the infrastructure to make that happen. That’s where we are: building the infrastructure on which a city can evolve and advance.”
One promising avenue for first steps into this exciting new future is easily overlooked. It is so ubiquitous as to be nearly invisible to the typical resident: streetlight poles.
Your average city has an existing infrastructure of thousands — even tens of thousands — of streetlights. Dallas has about 85,000 streetlights, and Chicago has more than 300,000. Typically owned and maintained by the municipality or the local utility, these poles have the additional benefit of usually being less cluttered with equipment than utility poles.
Lighting the Way
One improvement cities can make is accomplished by replacing the streetlights with LED lighting, which uses dramatically less energy.
“The cost savings associated with more efficient LED lights can be significant across thousands of lights,” Rowe says.
While cost savings can be achieved by swapping out older lamps, this type of upgrade also creates an opportune moment to add enhanced technology to the pole.
“The way some smart street lighting systems operate, they’re based on an algorithm that learns and detects ambient light,” Rowe says. These adaptive sensors minimize unnecessary illumination.
The more promising potential lies in establishing central control of these connected poles, enabling the lights to be set to a synchronized schedule and so much more.
It helps to first understand how the smart technology is added. Rowe sheds light from recent experience working for the City of Kansas City, Missouri, on a related pilot project that converted more than 170 poles.
“We switched out fixtures on streetlights to make them smart streetlights, which includes three components,” Rowe says. “The first is the LED light itself. Second is a core node sitting atop the fixture that can access the cloud via a Wi-Fi network. Then, on the bottom of the light, there’s an infrared sensor. Those three combine, enabling the city to turn lights up and down as needed.”
Increased central control creates additional possibilities for going beyond energy savings and using the lighting to enhance public safety. For example, in the event of an emergency incident, city managers could increase illumination in the affected area to assist emergency response activities.
Extra Sensor Perception
The potential of smart streetlight poles extends beyond lighting applications. Cities and their partners can leverage that infrastructure by adding a variety of additional sensors, most of which similarly rely on a wireless or internet-connected backbone.
Video cameras and video sensors are a logical fit.
“Cameras are a big part of security, but there’s a wide spectrum of camera types and uses,” says Scott Feuerborn, director of business consulting at Burns & McDonnell. “We have to ask how we can use different technology for security and public safety in combination with existing pole infrastructure while being mindful of privacy concerns.”
Rowe helped apply that technology to traffic challenges.
“On 125 poles, Kansas City installed a system of video sensors that are used to detect traffic counts and traffic speed,” he says. “More advanced intelligent transportation systems could leverage the data into an algorithm that makes sure your traffic signals are timed correctly.”
Residents might be concerned about potentially being monitored by video, but that is not the intent. According to Rowe, “the primary function of Kansas City’s sensor system is sending metadata back to a central repository, where you can run operational analytics on that data.” Clear public communications and outreach beforehand are important steps to allay those fears.
As part of its winning submission to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, the City of Columbus, Ohio, proposed implementing this kind of technology and central control as a way to improve response time for emergency vehicles. Optimizing traffic flow and improving vehicle and pedestrian safety are additional benefits.
“The data analysis of real-time camera feeds is becoming more and more advanced,” Feuerborn says. “You can feed information to your city’s police department or emergency dispatch if there’s been an incident needing fast response. Software analytics can be utilized with surveillance cameras to rapidly review video for vehicles using criteria such as direction, color and size.”
Gunfire detection systems are beginning to be incorporated into smart street lighting systems as well.
Kansas City, which implemented its initial program in coordination with the installation of a new downtown streetcar system, will use the sensors to detect when vehicles are obstructing the path of the streetcar. Faster response to any obstacles saves time and aggravation, providing both quantifiable and qualitative return on investment.
Another finalist in the Smart City Challenge is exploring adding air quality sensors on the light poles as part of its approach to addressing high air pollution levels. The goal in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is to collect real-time ambient air levels of pollutants to better understand air quality hot spots and how they correlate with transportation infrastructure. The same data could be used to measure the success of any emissions reduction efforts.
Further Down the Road
Much of the innovation being explored and developed for smart poles is dependent on internet connectivity.
“A smart system has to access the cloud,” Rowe says. “For that to happen, it needs to access the internet.”
Running hardline connections to thousands of poles can be cost-prohibitive and loses the advantages of utilizing existing infrastructure. Wi-Fi is the logical, simpler solution for enabling cloud-based systems.
Cities have to understand and plan for the additional bandwidth requirements, but once these systems are connected, the real potential for current and future implementations is unlocked. Yesterday’s science fiction becomes today’s reality.
“One of the trends people are thinking about more is that autonomous vehicles are coming online,” Rowe says. “They’re going to have to have vehicle-to-vehicle communication, as well as vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. All that data has to go somewhere and get there somehow, so increased connectivity is important.”
The same poles being utilized to connect the smart systems also could be used to support technology generating public Wi-Fi networks.
“Public Wi-Fi can be considered a tool to help break the digital divide,” Rowe says of the potential to offer internet access through wireless service and interactive kiosks to local community members who can benefit from additional access to job search tools and find social services. “A lot of times we take the internet for granted, but lots of people don’t have access or don’t know how to use it.”
The Power of Presence
Cities are always looking for ways to improve the quality of life and make things run more smoothly. Breaking down social barriers, improving efficiency for energy and traffic, and enhancing public safety measures are big-picture challenges. Working with the infrastructure already in place reduces the number of potential complications and increases the functionality of existing assets.
“The data discussion is driving better decision-making,” Rowe says. “Cities get additional return on investment because they can make more informed decisions.”
Delivering enhanced services without taking up extra space? That’s an idea rapidly assuming the pole position.
Streetlight Poles Factor Into Holistic Security Plans
Among a city government’s many responsibilities, providing for security and public safety is prominent. Doing it right means exploring every reasonable possibility.
“If you’re targeting public safety, you need to do it in a thoughtful, comprehensive, planned way,” says Scott Feuerborn, director of business consulting at Burns & McDonnell.
Adding security cameras and similar measures on existing lighting poles is an easy opportunity to overlook. Municipalities and their partners can explore whether there is adequate lighting and the potential for video coverage in desired public spaces.
“The placement of a camera is just as important as the type of camera itself, in coverage of what they’re in place to observe,” Feuerborn says.
Sometimes leveraging existing light poles can be beneficial to a city from a cost perspective, but it’s important to avoid becoming beholden to what’s already in place. “You also need to be aware that sometimes if it’s not done in the right manner, you might create a false sense of security in some environments,” Feuerborn says.
Understanding the implications of physical security measures and the potential of advanced technology is important when it comes to making decisions that add value. Combining these into public safety and security master plans is how smart cities can make meaningful, cost-justifiable improvements.
Lighting That's Listening
Gunfire detection systems already are being implemented in more than 90 cities nationwide, from New York to Chicago and Kansas City to San Francisco. These systems are constantly listening from placements in and around high-crime areas for the sound of gunfire.
When gunfire is detected, the system can use its numerous locations to triangulate where the sound originated, speeding response time to help save lives and apprehend criminals.
Some manufacturers now are incorporating the sensors for these detection systems into smart streetlight equipment. Interested municipalities can install the lights while upgrading existing poles, then work with the gunfire detection system vendor to activate the sensors.
Urban environments vary considerably, so upfront testing and evaluation are important elements of any broader implementation plans.