Qualcomm touts smart streetlights, water meters and other smart cities tech

September 20, 2019

San Diego cellular provider is counting on growth from Internet of Things, including connected smart cities infrastructure

Like many municipalities, the city of Carlsbad has deployed connected water meters to reduce costs of sending crews out to read meters manually.

But these smart meters provide something perhaps more valuable than operational savings. They generate digital data on water use.

The Carlsbad Municipal Water District began running analytics software on that data to spot spikes and anomalies in consumption. For a time, a staffer would call residents to let them know their usage had surged.

The result was 16 million gallons of water saved in just six months, said David Graham, Carlsbad’s chief innovation officer, at Qualcomm’s Smart Cities Accelerate 2019 conference this week.

“That doesn’t exactly drive revenue for the city. We get more revenue the more water people use,” said Graham. “But it drives a better customer experience, and ultimately in California we want to reduce water usage across the board.”

The benefits and challenges of smart cities technologies were the focus of Qualcomm’s Smart Cities event, where more than 550 people, including representatives from 400 companies that make smart cities technologies, attended at the company’s Sorrento Mesa campus.

For Qualcomm, smart cities technology is part of its strategy to bring the wireless connectivity not only to smartphones but also to many other things including roads, energy and water grids and smart streetlights.

Faster, more flexible 5G networks, which have begun rolling out globally, have been tailored to eventually connect as many as one million devices per square kilometer — paving the way for a vast expansion of connected sensors, cameras and infrastructure.

For cities, connecting and analyzing data from connected street lights, water meters, energy grids and environmental sensors has the potential to improve safety, ease traffic jams and preserve scarce resources.

“At an intersection, which is really one of the most dangerous parts of driving, you can actually manage it with a combination of cars communicating with cars, cars communicating with the infrastructure and the infrastructure, with video, having the ability to understand exactly what is going on,” said Jim Thompson, chief technology officer of Qualcomm.

Along with water and energy meters, smart streetlights are among the early pieces of infrastructure to get smart cities connectivity — largely because wirelessly controlled LED lamps cut energy costs.

But they aren’t without controversy. Because they’re connected and vertical, smart streetlights form a digital canopy that can support an array of sensors, as well as cameras.

This week, a coalition of local community groups raised privacy concerns over the city of San Diego’s retrofit of 4,200 smart streetlights to include cameras, microphones and other sensors.

The cameras have been used in 164 law enforcement investigations since August 2018. San Diego police are working with city departments and other stakeholders to develop policies about how the data should be used.

Smart cities technologies face additional hurdlers — strained municipal budgets, the lack of standardized technologies that work together, data silos within government departments and long sales cycles.

Still, rapid urbanization is expected to drive demand for smart cities technologies and data analytics that help manage traffic and preserve natural resources, especially with the increasing focus on environmental sustainability.

The city of San Diego recently began analyzing origin and destination data from scooter companies operating downtown — coupling the information with existing bicycle, pedestrian and vehicle data from cameras and other sources.

The goal is to improve transportation planning in the city’s core.

“The old way of doing it was the Field of Dreams approach — you build infrastructure and hope people use it in the way you expect,” said Erik Caldwell, San Diego’s deputy chief operating officer. “Now we are starting to go back and let the data drive decisions on where should we put in dedicated bike lanes? Where should we take roads out? Where should we change speeds of travel?”

In Carlsbad, letting residents know that their water use had increased not only resulted in preservation, it also helped those residents save a combined $200,000 on their water bills, said Graham.

“People now see that this meter technology, which was just supposed to help us reduce the cost of running the system, is a benefit to residents,” he said. “It is changing behavior because we have this closer connection to customers.”

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