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How Sensors Promise To Change Our Lives, From Smoother Traffic To Smarter Garbage

Article illustrative image Partner logo Installing weather censors in Villeurbanne, in the suburbs of Lyon

TOULOUSE — After a year of work and five million euros in investments, Sigfox, a start-up from Labège, near Toulouse, southern France, has just finished deploying a new communications network — an Internet of Things — in 95% of the cities in France.

Sensors spread out across cities and their suburbs will be able to transmit information to a website or even receive orders. “The applications are endless,” says Sigfox CEO Ludovic Le Moan. “We will be able to monitor pollution levels, optimize traffic flows, prevent breakdowns in urban lighting…”

In Grenoble, east-central France, the company Atim Radiocommunications has already installed 4,000 humidity sensors on the urban heating network to detect leaks. “Around the world, there are 2,400 projects to turn cities into smart cities, notably thanks to sensors linked within a local network,” says IBM France Vice-President Philippe Sajhau, the man behind IBM Smarter Cities Challenge. “It’s a huge market: the population is becoming more and more urban, and cities must be careful with their spending while making life easier for its inhabitants.”

“What is important today is not the company that builds garbage bins, it’s the company that will — thanks to sensors — make the bins smart and help the city manage its garbage truck route better,” explains Christophe Féry, the organizer of the Innovative City Convention. A company named Connit, also based in Labège, is already offering a solution to monitor the rate at which the garbage trucks get filled.

A better hand on infrastructures

Sensor networks are being experimented in many places. The networks are interconnected and connected to a central computer via Wi-Fi, cell phones, power line communication (PLC) or other transmitting devices like the one Sigfox uses. The information that is collected is analyzed and compared to data from previous years, which allows cities to better manage their services and infrastructures.

In Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, the birthplace of Philips, the Intelligent Lighting Institute of the Eindhoven University of Technology LightHouse has been asked to develop a roadmap for urban lighting in 2030. “LEDs and sensors will help adapt the light according to the time of day, weather, number of people the streets, their mood or the fine particle dust in the atmosphere,” says Elke den Ouden, LightHouse founder.

Brazil, Malaysia and the Philippines are testing sensors to monitor water saturation levels in the earth beneath shantytowns so that they can prevent landslides.

The Optimod’Lyon project in Lyon, east-central France, comprises of 450 sensors spread all over the city to measure the density of traffic. The data they transmit allows the city to predict traffic for the next hour with a reliability rate of over 90%. The idea is that in the future traffic light management and information for public transport users can be adapted accordingly. Also in Lyon, HiKoB, a start-up from Villeurbanne, in the suburbs, has deployed about 60 weather sensors that are self-sufficient energy wise. The teams responsible for salting and snow removal are now able to better target their interventions. In the winter, street maintenance costs up to 400,000 euros a day.

“We are at the beginning of a revolution made possible by the low cost of sensors, their miniaturization, their greater autonomy, the drop in communication costs as well as progress in data processing and storage, including the progress made in data analysis,” says Pascal Rioual, deputy director of the French competitiveness cluster Capenergies. The last step would be finding the most profitable applications.

The promises of “hyper monitoring”

One of the most futuristic designs is “hyper monitoring,” which goes even further than just monitoring a city. “The sensors see everything, their data is brought together and visualized in a central command center and then redistributed to the services or the users who need it,” explains a tech adviser from the French S2E2 competitiveness cluster. “One day, we will even be able to send personalized text messages to warn the users that their morning bus is late and that they have five more minutes to enjoy their coffee.

But in order to achieve this, we need to develop multifunctional sensors and de-compartmentalize information. Urban lighting, for instance, is the second biggest budget for cites, after heating and infrastructure indoor lighting. Thanks to PLC, street lamps can create a communications network. They could be fitted with sensors that can send out an alert when their light bulbs start losing efficiency. The street lamps could also be used to monitor many other things: humidity (when it rains, cars consume more — users of electric cars need to be warned); heat on surrounding buildings (to alert residents in case of a fire); as well as infrared sensors to detect cars and pedestrians at night (street lamps turn on as needed); the presence of a body or an assault…

The question is: Will the services in charge of urban lighting share their sensors or data with other local and national services such as firefighters or the police, or even private operators (electric car-sharing companies)?

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France's top business daily, Les Echos covers domestic and international economic, financial and markets news. Founded in 1908, the newspaper has been the property of French luxury good conglomerate LVMH (Moet Hennessy - Louis Vuitton) since 2007.

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