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How smart can a smart city be?

by maria

Distributed acoustic sensing technology is the invisible backbone of smart cities, making them even better

August 2021, Hampshire, England – Smart cities are here to stay. Whether that is urban planners transforming historic cities such as London and Amsterdam to make them smarter or creating new, purpose-built smart cities. In fact, by 2050, approximately seven billion people will be living in urban areas[1], which is more than 60% of the world’s population. And investment is in line with these predictions: global spending on smart cities in 2020 was USD679bn and is expected to reach USD1 trillion by 2025[2]. Additionally, over the next 20 years, city governments are projected to spend USD41 trillion[3]. In the USA, a Smart Cities and Communities Act has been proposed to promote the use of smart city technologies and to authorise USD1.1 billion investment over five years.

Smart cities – the future is now

In a bid to improve efficiency and quality of life, technology is being integrated into every aspect of smart cities: quick and easy to travel within locally, minimal pollution and safe living spaces.

Stuart Large, Product Line Director for Fotech, a bp Launchpad company, says, “There are many definitions of a smart city, but the overriding ethos is that it uses IoT sensors, actuators and technology to connect components across the city, linking every layer of a city, from below the ground to the street and the air. The data gathered and the insights derived from that data can be analysed continuously to improve the quality of life for the residents.”

The key is in the data. Data – and the sensors and technology used to collect it – are integral to creating a seamless smart city. And sensing technology is vital for data.

“Designing a smart city from scratch presents a lot of challenges,” Large says. “The various elements that need sensing and the considerations that must be taken into account when specifying sensor technologies are paramount.”

Smart cities are built on many layers – both below and above ground – and there are different elements that need sensing. For example, sensor technology can collect data on everything from rush hour statistics to overall air quality.

The main elements to monitor are:

  • Utilities
  • Transport (rail and subway)
  • Transport (traffic and automobiles)
  • Emergency services
  • Pedestrian movement/footfall
  • Environmental health/pollution
  • Energy/clean energy/renewables

The invisible infrastructure – fibre optic cables

Fibre optic cables, which are critical for enabling 5G, can actually be used as sensors. They are capable of city-wide monitoring of vital aspects both above and below the ground, continuously, over hundreds of kilometres. This subtle, cost-saving duality is achieved via Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) technology. DAS uses cutting-edge photonics, advanced artificial intelligence and edge computing to convert the cables into sophisticated acoustic sensors.

These capabilities allow continuous real-time monitoring of smart city infrastructure on a much more detailed level than is possible with other technologies today.

Large says, “For new smart cities being built from scratch, DAS has immense value with the ability to monitor continuously over vast distances. For older cities, looking to introduce smart technology, DAS’s benefits can be delivered at minimal incremental cost to installers because it essentially plugs into existing fibre optic cable networks. Extensive construction work, digging up the streets or installing new fixed-point sensors or cameras is not necessary.”

Another key benefit of DAS is that it does not detect personal information. As an acoustic sensing technology, it monitors for vibrations, and can distinguish the type of activity, but it cannot identify people or vehicles carrying out the activity.

Considerations when choosing sensing technologies

There are many different sensing technologies available – acoustic sensors, LiDAR, radar, 3D camera sensors, environmental sensors, flow sensors, gas sensors, and humidity and temperature sensors – and many different principles of operation, so city architects are faced with two main challenges. The first, to know which one will present the best option for a particular application. Secondly, they then must understand how the sensing technologies should be designed into the city infrastructure from the outset.

Large says, “It is important for smart city architects to make some decisions early on, for example, is continuous monitoring required, is real-time data needed, how reliable is the technology and how long will that tech be relevant? Lastly, the scalability of the solution is very important.”

The time for smart cities is now

It is generally accepted that smart technology has the power to make lives simpler – especially in highly populated urban areas. The rapid development of smart cities is already proving this. Thanks to its continuous monitoring, DAS provides a vital base layer of intelligence, able to detect and to pinpoint the location of incidents accurately. This technology works together with more traditional monitoring measures to complement them, rather than to replace them.

Large concludes, “Integrating DAS into a smart city puts the people first, improving their quality of life. Using this reliable, continuous sensing technology means that the city authorities save money and have less operative and data legwork. It also means that people can live simpler, more fulfilled lives with increased mobility, reduced travel time, faster emergency services and cleaner air. It’s a future where everyone wins.”

For more information on smart cities, download Fotech’s whitepaper Smart sensing redefined: the invisible backbone for smart cities at www.fotech.com/smartcitywhitepaper.

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