IoT: Helping smart cities turn the corner

2 July 2018

At 2018’s Mobile World Congress Shanghai, Internet of Things (IoT) smart city innovations are setting the pace and path for regional telecommunications development.

At last week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) Shanghai – the Asian edition of the world’s largest wireless industry symposium held in Barcelona each February – many of the next-generation concepts that seem to be just around the corner for years were on display. A casual tour of the exhibition halls still reveals scores of VR-helmeted visitors swatting and swiping at the air in front of them.

This image of a community groping towards intangible goals, provides a subtext for much of the communications industry, increasingly anxious that the corner will not be turned anytime soon. Uncertainty around the future of 5G is a root cause of this anxiety, which forks into many branches, ranging from the potential drag that the US-China technology industry trade war will have on the development of the technology’s standards, to the perceived lack of revenue-generating use cases that would justify the substantial investments that 5G will require.

One area however where the future does actually seem to be coming more rapidly into focus is applications and use cases for the Internet of Things (IoT) in Asia’s cities, underscored by continued innovations to produce lower cost, and lower-powered sensors, as well as the increased use of machine learning to optimise sensor networks. All of this has convened to start to create real scale in urban sensing networks, which is an end in itself.

Managing city street lighting more cost-efficiently is one quick win that the industry is turning to, enabled by technology developments such as the ‘ultra-low power’ NB-Internet of Things (IoT) lighting management solutions. Produced by Shanghai-based EigenCOMM Technology, it can increase coverage capabilities and reduce costs by using System on Chip (SoC) configurations and reducing the amount of silicon used. Connecting street lamps also turns lighting grids into platforms for other public security applications; vendors were demonstrating solutions that integrate facial recognition systems and security monitoring within the lighting management configuration.

Even more impactful for Asian urban sustainability efforts is a seeming raft of projects to monitor city air quality with greater granularity. A group from Finland’s University of Helsinki demonstrated its early stages of an intelligent air quality monitoring system, which employs machine learning to calibrate small sensors and create ‘virtual’ sensors to extend their coverage and accuracy. Currently, in active trials in Helsinki, the University team will soon be deploying 30 to 50 sensors in Beijing, in an effort that will ultimately need up to 100,000 such sensors for comprehensive coverage. Other Asian carriers looking to use air quality monitoring efforts as a tool for expanding IoT’s footprint in their smart city ecosystems include Korea Telecom for a project in Seoul.

Elsewhere, there are several efforts to bring location and navigation technology to bear on traffic management, autonomous driving and logistics. Astri, a Hong Kong government-run technology incubator, was showcasing the results of its V2X (vehicle-to-everything) networking architecture trials. Astri has long been active in ‘pre-autonomous’ smart parking navigation application development, and is now experimenting with self-driving cars navigating in Hong Kong, and communicating with various traffic and non-traffic Internet of Things (IoT) systems they encounter.

While promising, Astri’s trials have revealed the limitations of current GPS technology in a dense urban environment – high-powered GPS systems produce jitter and lack of definition in such close quarters. This challenge is one which 5G could be well-suited to solve.

Swedish mobile software firm Combain produces granular indoor maps generated by crowdsourced data from mobile devices and WiFi hotspots; the enthusiasm with which opt-in smartphone-wielding mall shoppers provide helps them comprehensively map out a mall or a hospital, accurate to within a meter, in a matter of hours. Combining user-generated views of urban spaces with GPS data will be a critical step in making Internet of Things (IoT)-based location services more capable and powerful.

Not all Internet of Things (IoT) efforts on display are geared at making Asia’s megacities more liveable. China Telecom has launched Small Vaquero, an Internet of Things (IoT) animal husbandry management solution that allows farms and agribusinesses to monitor individual cattle for location and health data, and analyse aggregate trend data. China Telecom currently claims some 200,000 head of cattle have been fitted with low-costs mobile sensors in Gansu, Inner Mongolia and other western provinces.

While perhaps not the most obvious revenue-generating Internet of Things (IoT) application, Small Vaquero demonstrates the growing will of Asian players to exploit the growing efficiencies of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and network infrastructure to build rich data sets, and set in motion a virtuous cycle for smarter cities.

Insightful reads brought to you in partnership with MIT Technology Review Insights.


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