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The Era of Smart Communities and Infrastructure

Ed Koehler Distinguished Principal Engineer Published 18 Jun 2021

This the first in a series of blogs dedicated to discussing the future of smart communities and infrastructure in our modern society.

In the late winter of 2020 and into early 2021, a massive cold snap surged southward as far as Texas and Oklahoma. The result was extensive power outages across vast areas of the region due to ice and snowstorms. There was infrastructure damage such as downed powerlines, but the real reason for the outage was the power imbalance resulting from the event.

Both states had made considerable investments in green energy with immense solar panel farms and wind farms. Up to almost half of the region’s power came from these green power sources. But during the cold snap, both resources were incapacitated. The solar farms became disabled due to ice and snow coverage of several inches. At the same time, the wind farms were shut down due to the weather event. The remainder of the power generation plants could not keep up. As a result, many people went for several days, if not weeks, without electricity.

The lesson here is twofold. First, we need to think about weather scenarios and other potential events that could impact the power grid. Second, moving to a green power grid, laudable as that may be, is not sufficient in and of itself. The power grid needs to be smart, and it needs to be based on multiple power generation methods.

History also tells us that the growth of green energy can cause imbalances in the power grid. Several European countries, most notably Germany, have experienced these power grid issues. The problem has been solved by the intelligent balance of power generation and storage to maintain the innate integrity of the grid. Furthermore, as we move to electric vehicles, they will also need to be smart.

Moving to the highways, we are seeing the advent of intelligent traffic management systems to handle the rush hour phenomenon that is once again starting to appear in dense metropolitan areas. This concept is not new, as many years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation began an initiative called Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC). The DSRC project envisioned a nationwide vehicle and roadside communication network utilizing applications such as vehicle safety services, traffic jam alerts, toll collections, vehicle collision avoidance, and adaptive traffic light control.

In October 1999, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz (UNII-4 band) to be used by intelligent transportation systems (ITS). Unfortunately, there has been a lack of progress for utilizing this frequency band for ITS. Therefore, in November of 2019, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to reconsider the rules for the 75 MHz UNII-4 band. The NPRM proposes repurposing the lower 45 MHz of the UNII-4 band to be used for Wi-Fi and unlicensed use. But do not fret, the upper 30 MHz of the UNII-4 band may be reaffirmed for automotive ITS using a new LTE cellular technology called C-V2x. Cellular vehicle-to- everything (C-V2X) is an ITS technology meant to enable vehicles to communicate with each other and everything around them (example: traffic lights).

Public transportation is quickly evolving into smarter and more resilient systems. Statistics show that most accidents in public transportation are the result of human error on behalf of the operator. In response, many countries have implemented smart railway systems that remove a large portion of, if not all, the functions of the human operator.

In the United States, there is the Federal Railway Agency (FRA) Positive Train Control (PTC) or FRA-PTC. PTC systems are designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments, and other mishaps. The FRA-PTC allows for the central command of trains, rail switches, rail crossings, etc. The train operator’s primary role is to act as an override mechanism to monitor the systems and communicate back to the central control.

Such technologies can drastically reduce the number of derailing incidents as well as the number of collisions. New stress sensor technologies are being integrated into the railways and roadway bridges within the rail infrastructure to indicate signs of wear and need for service. These innovations will significantly enhance transportation safety and improve the human experience.

There are many other additional technologies that can greatly enhance public safety in metropolitan areas. We are all familiar with the video surveillance cameras seen on many street corners. But many are not aware of the advanced audio telemetry system that is often also integrated with these camera systems. These audio sensors can accurately measure the sound, volume, and direction of sudden incoming load noises such as gunshots or automobile accidents. Several audio sensors analyze and triangulate the source of origin if an event transpires. This information is then directly fed into the video surveillance system to provide live videos of the event area to responding teams. This integration of technologies allows for a quicker, more accurate public safety response and reduces risk to first responder teams.

I know that I’ve talked a lot about public safety, but I think that it’s a paramount use for smart communities and infrastructure. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind being greeted by a soothing automated voice as I return to my hotel room after a long day’s work: “Good evening and welcome back home, Mr. Koehler! Your bath is currently being readied and will be at the exact temperature that you normally desire. There is also a nice bottle of Dom Perignon in the refrigerator. Please enjoy!”

Although currently we only see that type of smart home user experience in the movies, we will see these things in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, rest assured that smart communities and infrastructure are already making our lives more enjoyable, but more importantly, safer. The next time you drive down the road or take public transit, think about the systems and technologies that make it all work so well and at such scale. As time moves on, intelligence will be embedded into the infrastructure. We are only in the beginning stages.

A tremendous amount of data is collected from the millions of sensors and IoT devices from both smart communities and infrastructure. Therefore, scalable cloud solutions are critical to orchestrating, storing, troubleshooting, and digesting insights from the vast intake of data. As I mentioned, this is the first in a series of blogs about smart cities and infrastructure. To further kick off this blog series, please take some more time to watch my video on how IoT devices build up a smart community and infrastructure framework:

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