Sensors may be key to truly smart cities

Smart cities may be a wave of the future, but many countries are just working to support their residents in the present. A new technology looks at how, as populations increase, technology can help bring services — like clean water and medical care — to underserved urban areas.

Testing the in-situ computer vision. Credit: DOE’s Arbonne National Laboratory

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Arbonne National Laboratory (ANL) is working to help underserved urban areas — with technology that will help bring the world closer to smart cities.

“One of the biggest barriers to making cities ‘smarter’ — for example, comprehensively monitoring sources of waterway pollutants in real time — is quick and easy access to data,” explained ANL.

 ANL has been studying urban populations and how the future of smart cities may be the key to a quality of life that many are not experiencing. According to the laboratory, smart cities will need to be outfitted with hundreds or thousands of sensors, which would be made to test for factors like air pressure, temperature and different germs. There would be workers who would then take that data and act accordingly.

ANL is testing a new platform known as Waggle, which helps collect data through the sensors.

“Featuring the same type of circuit board and real-time processing speeds inside your smartphone, ‘Wagglers’ can add their own mix of sensors, specific to what they’re researching, and install programs onto a single low-power “system on a chip” computer board, complete with a Linux-based operating system to control them,” said ANL in a statement.

According to ANL, Waggle didn’t start with such a large vision, but rather as a small project that was tasked with monitoring heat changed within a supercomputer’s machine room. The data was isolated and unattainable until you checked each sensor. But it soon turned into a platform to monitor the data received by the sensors, where “you can monitor the project website, and if something looks kind of screwy you can go in and correct it,” accoridng to Design Fellow Jacqueline Cole.

“Waggle can gather the data, send it up to the cloud and get a really fantastic picture of whatever physical processes the researcher wants, whether it’s city or climate data or even hyperspectral data from plants,” said Argonne senior computer scientist and project leader Pete Beckman. “This is the equivalent of a microscope looking at a cell, except we’re using sensors, turning them towards the environment and getting the most comprehensive picture yet of what is actually happening.”

Other scientists have begun looking at this technology to see how it could help their own cities. The city of Chicago is working to map bicrobiomes in the city’s waterways — with the goal of understanding human behavior’s effect on urban environments.

“Waggle can help us with environmental context and give us the ability to create an automated sensing grid,” said Jack Gilbert, an Argonne microbial ecologist. “We can then draw maps of how those parameters vary, so we can explore areas of greater or lesser activity inside a space. It’s incredibly valuable for us to have that continuously connected grid for data generation.”

Scientists are also using data from the sensors to monitor things like heat, pollution and climate studies. The smart city of the future won’t just be convenient, but it could save lives. The researchers are working to figure out how to best utilize the technology, which has the potential to help cities in the United States — but also urban areas across the world.

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