Smart Cities: how a new industry is being created on light poles

The incandescent light bulb is no longer the symbol of ideas. Surprisingly, perhaps, the new symbol may be a street or highway lighting pole, which just so happens to be the fundamental element in the new concept of “smart cities.”

Through it, existing poles could be retrofitted with sensors and other devices to do things like enhancing GPS; monitor seismic activity; measure temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind direction, pollen, and radiation; listen for gunshots; increase or decrease illumination based on traffic conditions; and even recharge delivery drones.

The data derived would be sent to other IoT devices to alert first responders, to develop anticipatory algorithms, and for an array of other activities yet to be considered.

Are we witnessing the birth – or would it be the adolescence? – of Big Brother? That and other important questions were considered by three experts who comprised the “Smart Cities” panel at the National Lighting Bureau’s 2017 Annual Lighting Forum.

You can watch and listen to the panel discussion free of charge here. The panellists were:

James Benya Benya Burnett Consultancy
Mark Lien Industry Relations Manager, Illuminating Engineering Society
Shelli Sedlak Manager, The Institute, Current, Powered by GE

Benya got things under way by defining a smart city as one that “uses street lights as a source of data, as a connection point for a distributed communications system, and to use lighting as we never have before.” He noted that a major change is in the works, however, as telecommunications companies prepare to convert their 4G systems to 5G and, in so doing, increase data in cities by “thousands of times”.

Mark Lien commented that lighting would be the linchpin that connects all types of disparate devices, in large part because street and highway lighting units establish a network of already-established electrical connection points.

Shelli Sedlak described the United States’ largest connected smart cities platform, created in San Diego as an interconnected, sensory network. At this point, drivers will be able to connect to it via their smartphones to learn, among other things, where the nearest available parking space is located. But that’s just a minor element of a system that even now can do much more.

James Benya observed that the new technology will enable real-time lighting-output control that will support a range of uses and users, including first responders.

As he also noted, however, the conversion of high intensity discharge (HID) lighting sources to light emitting diode (LED) will lower energy consumption and costs of street and highway lighting by 50 percent. An additional 25 percent decrease will be derived from dimming outdoor lighting units when less light is needed by virtue of natural-light availability and/or fewer vehicles and pedestrians needing light.

The biggest fear of the lighting community, the panellists seemed to agree, was the shrinking role of lighting. In other words, as sensors and other equipment give the lighting poles important new capabilities, lighting itself may be taken for granted by those who do not understand lighting’s many challenges, and seem to believe “lighting is easy.” As the panellists emphasized, lighting is not easy. Nor will pole retrofit be easy.

Lighting poles will experience a significant amount of added weight, especially when 5G telecommunications equipment is added. There will also be the need to harden installations for security purposes.

In other words, the development of smart cities will mean that almost all existing lighting poles throughout the world will need new, sturdier foundations. But that’s not all. As Benya commented: “a substantial network of fibre optic data cables will be needed to support the data backhaul, given that the mesh-network technology now being used for lighting is not even remotely capable of supporting telecom or advanced high-resolution cameras. Without upgrading, the existing system’s capabilities will be limited to lighting and IoT sensors with limited data volume and speed.”

Lien also expressed fears about privacy issues, especially given the use of facial recognition and smartphone beacons among other devices and technologies that will give data owners and users the ability to learn where almost anyone is at any time. And who will own and use the data?




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