From gaslight to intelligent data node, street lights are evolving

By embracing cloud networks and big data analytics, modern street lights now do so much more than just show us a safe path home in the dark

Building a big data network across a city can be an expensive project. But as forward-thinking cities such as San Diego, Paris and Glasgow have discovered, you don’t need to build a new IoT infrastructure. You can upgrade a network that's already there.

Smart streetlights will come jam-packed with technology, including environmental sensors.

Consider our street lights. You might not notice them during the day, but you'll find them on every street and in every city. They have been lighting the way since the 17th century, powered first by candles, then by coal gas lamps, before electric arc lighting was introduced in 1875.

These days, most modern street lights use high-pressure sodium bulbs and photocells that switch them on/off automatically at dusk/dawn. For a long time, this was as smart as street lights got. But they're poised to get a whole lot smarter, changing the fabric of our cities, how they operate, and the way we live in them. In fact, you might never look at a street light in the same way again.

Today’s street lights already look a little different. Many areas across the UK are upgrading their lighting networks with more efficient LED bulbs. The new technology uses up to 70 percent less energy (saving money), focuses white light downwards (thereby reducing light pollution), and provides improved visibility compared to the dull, yolk-yellow glow of older sodium lamps.

Using cameras and motion sensors, smart street lamps will monitor traffic conditions.

Smart city systems don’t just show what’s happening today, they can also predict what might happen tomorrow, helping cities plan more effectively for the future

Bristol changed over 20,000 street lamps to save £1 million per year on its energy costs. While replacing 55,000 bulbs right across Gloucestershire will save £17 million over 12 years. (After the £22 million cost of installation, that is)[1] .

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But more efficient lighting isn’t the sci-fi future of the street lamp. For that, you need to look at a city like Glasgow. Here, the addition of wireless connectivity allows the city’s operations centre to monitor the status of its lighting network and to remotely brighten or dim lighting when required. Lights can, for example, be turned up in city trouble spots to help tackle outbreaks of anti-social behaviour.

This connectivity, over 3G, 4G and ultimately 5G data networks, transforms street lights into smart city data gatherers and multi-functional IoT nodes. By capturing a wide range of real-time information – e.g. traffic volume, pedestrian footfall, weather, noise – and then plugging that data into an analytics platform, new solutions to old challenges can emerge.

The inclusion of air quality sensors will give cities a real-time picture of pollution levels.

In short: fresh insights can be gained into how a city really works.

The addition of a camera to a street light can augment a city’s existing CCTV technology, providing expanded coverage. Access to images and live video opens up intriguing 'situational awareness' scenarios, where traffic, crowds and even parking availability can be monitored in real-time via the cloud.

In Glasgow, 800 vehicle sensors generate 3MB of data per minute [2]. Storing this data, and merging it with other datasets (such as weather, city events and accident reports), can give an invaluable insight into traffic flow trends.

Adding a microphone to a street light allows a smart city to potentially monitor noise pollution and to identify disturbances in real-time. In San Diego, 3,200 of GE's Current CityIQ nodes, powered by Intel technology, have been added as part of an upgrade to 14,000 street lights. Working with ShotSpotter, these nodes can even use their built-in audio sensors for gunshot detection, sending possible live-fire incidents to the authorities.

With space for HDR colour cameras, a GPS receiver, microphones, environmental sensors (such as temperature and air pollution), plus Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, each CityIQ node can capture a vast amount of environmental data. Made accessible through the cloud using secure APIs, they deliver real-time, actionable intelligence to help cities operate smarter and to keep their citizens safe.

Think smart street lights might be watching you? You’re probably right.

Elsewhere, Telenor has rolled out upgraded street lighting in Sweden that includes traffic monitoring, presence detection and temperature reporting, all linked together using 3G networks. While in Paris, integrated street and traffic light systems are part of an IPv6-based multi-application network in the cloud that’s ready for environmental sensors, smart parking and water conservation initiatives.

We live in an increasingly data-driven world. Why not use it? By applying cloud computing, IoT and data analytics technology, councils hope to reduce traffic congestion, increase pedestrian safety, tackle crime and save money. Crucially, these smart city systems don’t just show what’s happening today. They could also predict what might happen tomorrow, helping cities plan more effectively for the future.

So take another look at the street light outside your door. There might be more to it than meets the eye.

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