Managing the Flow: Smart Sensors for Smart Cities

Sensors Insights by Raghid Shreih

Imagine technologies that would allow municipal government to monitor traffic flow in real time, directing assistance where it is needed and gaining important data for future city planning projects. Or imagine flood-prone cities getting continually updated data about area flooding, enabling the seamless direction of rescue efforts and dissemination of warnings to the populace.

The potential for these scenarios is here today as a result of the research and development at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Dr. Christian Claudel's Distributed Sensing Systems Laboratory at KAUST has developed smart sensor technologies that can make this vision a reality.

The smart sensors system consists of two parts: a wireless sensor network and a back-end server system (see fig 1.). The wireless network is composed of wireless sensor boards connected to ultrasound transducers that point toward the ground. When these boards are positioned over the roadway, they can assess density, flow, and velocity of local traffic. The system can be used with software that enables traffic estimation and prediction, which makes it ideal for urban environments.

Fig. 1: A wireless sensor network on the lab floor.
Fig. 1: A wireless sensor network on the lab floor.

It's accurate, inexpensive, and solar-powered, which makes it a very cost-effective and environmentally sensitive solution for municipalities that need to monitor traffic flow and deal with bottlenecks in real time (see fig. 2). The network of sensors and software can provide forecasts of traffic congestion with unprecedented accuracy, which is a critical need in areas where a small increase in traffic can lead to pileups and slowed movement for all who need to navigate the area.

Fig. 2: A wireless sensor with solar-powered module.
Fig. 2: A wireless sensor with solar-powered module.

When Minutes Count

Not only can the smart sensors monitor traffic flow, they can also help cities deal with one of the most difficult natural disasters: floods. When minutes count, the smart sensors can help identify areas of rising water for cities prone to flooding.

Storms and floods account for nearly 70% of the world's natural disasters. These disasters affect up to 200 million people per year, with economic losses between US$50 billion and US$100 billion annually. This is likely to increase as global climate change places more cities at risk.

Smart sensors provide monitoring of flood propagation, enabling local and regional agencies to offer up-to-the-minute warnings and rapid response in case of emergency. Local authorities can use this system to determine which roads should be closed to the public and which are safe for emergency response vehicles. Long-term, the results can be used in urban planning efforts.

This system is unique in flood monitoring efforts because it functions as more than a simple alert system. It provides precise data on water levels in roadways—crucial information in the event of a flash flood. The continuous stream of data also helps authorities track flood conditions and generate accurate impact maps. The technology is superior to satellite-based systems, which can only track flooding after clouds have dissipated. This makes the smart sensors technology appropriate for a wider range of geographic areas.

The flood monitoring system can be further enhanced using lightweight, disposable, floating microsensors, which can be automatically deployed from fixed lightpost-mounted units during flood events. The motion of these sensors is tracked by the fixed sensor network. Taken together, data from the fixed and floating sensors allows real-time mapping and forecasting using to-the-minute data and flood propagation models.

Future Potential

Rapid urbanization poses significant global infrastructure and governance challenges. Congestion, pollution, climate change, and waste disposal, as well as growing energy and water demand by city populations, all require innovative technology-based solutions. These solutions not only help to alleviate problems but also result in more efficient and cost-effective city government as well as improved services to the general public. As a result, the market for smart cities technologies is growing rapidly and is expected to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars by 2020.

The challenge with these technologies is that smart city solutions are disruptive technologies that replace existing systems and processes. They also require system wide deployment to realize their full potential. Thus, there is often resistance to change that comes from municipal officials, consultants, suppliers, and industry players who are accustomed to and comfortable with existing systems. Furthermore, successful implementation of smart city technologies normally requires collaboration between multiple parties due to their complexity.

Therefore, we look forward to building the smart sensors market in cooperation with regions and municipalities that see a need to monitor traffic or the threat of flooding. This will involve forging partnerships with industry to help with engineering, installation, operation, and system maintenance. It is a technology poised for widespread use. Opportunities exist for joint development, patent licensing, or other mutually beneficial relationships. For more information, email [email protected].

About the Author
Raghid Shreih is a Technology Portfolio Manager at KAUST TTI. He has 10 years of experience in semiconductors, telecommunications, networking, encryption, software, and Internet technologies. In his previous role as a Senior Patent Analyst at Global Intellectual Strategies, Raghid helped clients manage their patent portfolios, evaluate patents, identify infringement, and develop licensing strategies.

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is an international, graduate research university dedicated to advancing science and technology through interdisciplinary research, education, and innovation. Students, faculty, scientists, and engineers conduct fundamental and goal-oriented research to address the world's pressing scientific and technological challenges related to water, food, energy, and the environment. For more details, visit the university's website and/or send an email to [email protected].

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