23 January 2020

Smart in the city: harnessing 5G and IoT to solve urban challenges.
BY Shane McHugh

If you want to understand the future, one way is to build it yourself: that’s what Toyota is doing, by developing a smart city in Japan. At the CES conference this month, Toyota unveiled its planned “living lab” where it can test its self-driving vehicle technology, surrounded by internet-enabled devices in homes and offices. This may seem like a futuristic concept but it’s closer than you may think. Cities around the world, including in Ireland, are looking at how they can transform their environments into connected, technology-enabled places to live and work.

A smart city uses available technology to improve how it manages its infrastructure, for the benefit of citizens and businesses. Right now, there’s a lot of activity taking place to solve challenges and test technologies with the aim of improving city life. This includes smart parking meters in Adelaide that guide drivers to free spaces, traffic management systems in Amsterdam that respond in real time to prevent congestion on busy routes, or sensor-enabled streetlights in Barcelona that save energy by switching off when the roads aren’t in use.

Closer to home, the Smart Cities Ireland initiative tracks projects in six different locations around the country including Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Belfast. In Dublin alone, Smart Docklands uses sensing technologies to monitor for, and reduce, urban air pollution, and rainfall monitors that can give early warning alerts for flooding risk. DCU Alpha campus hosts research-intensive businesses that are investigating technologies and services of the future.

Today, many smart city projects are mainly happening in silos, but the ultimate goal is to link these disparate projects together, giving planners or city managers a more complete view of activity across a smart, connected city. This will make it possible to take decisions that enhance the quality of life for its people, improve public transport, or boost air quality levels. Across the globe, the need for cities to run as smoothly and cost-efficiently as possible is growing. Cities have sprawled: today, around 55 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities. The United Nations estimates this will reach 68 per cent by 2050.

Understanding the environment.

At the same time, technology now allows us to find ways to do this. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors are a key building block in any smart city, by enabling various objects in the urban landscape to communicate with each other over the internet. Placing lots of them in close proximity provides authorities with data that help them to understand what’s happening in key parts of the environment.

How 5G helps smart cities.

There are already many IoT projects that use other connectivity options, but the arrival of 5G promises to help to combine individual projects into a more interconnected whole. IoT sensors generate massive volumes of data which needs to be communicated back to city planners and urban authorities, so they can analyse it and make informed decisions about changes they need to make. 5G is compatible with many diverse types of sensors and monitoring devices. What’s more, the higher capacity and throughput over 5G also makes it possible to process data much faster than on current networks, while decreasing bandwidth and reducing energy consumption.

Specific smart city applications that can benefit from 5G and its capabilities include intelligent lighting, waste management, smart parking, water metering and environmental monitoring. The following section looks at three aspects of a smart city that are already emerging, in transport, healthcare and retail.

Transport in the city.

Mention transport in the context of a city, and everyone thinks of traffic. With smart city infrastructure, if there’s an accident causing a blockage along a major city artery, one option would be to launch a drone to survey the crash site which could assess the fastest way for emergency services to reach the location, or to help reroute traffic flows to alleviate gridlock.

City authorities could then dynamically flash a message to connected, smart roadside signs, letting all road users know of the diversions in place. As we get ready for a future with autonomous vehicles, cars will increasingly rely on data about their surroundings to be able to map routes and arrive safely.

Healthcare improvements in a smart city.

In healthcare, one of the biggest challenges is in getting access to hospitals. Making them smart and connected, with IoT and 5G opens up the possibility of remote healthcare. We’re already seeing this concept in action on Arranmore island, where connected sensors were installed in elderly islander’s homes as an assisted living solution. The connected IoT sensors check for signs that the person is active and moving around the house.

Arranmore’s health centre also has a videoconferencing suite connected over high-speed broadband so that people can have a consultants’ visit without having to endure a long commute to a faraway hospital.

In the future, this could involve operations performed by specialists who are in different locations, but who can use 5G and integrated healthcare technology to perform the surgery.

Shining a light on smarter retail.

When it comes to retail, smart cities think about this in terms of shopping districts rather than individual stores. The aim is to enable a city, or a part of it, to operate and control itself as much as possible. Street lighting is expensive, so in a retail area, what if the lighting only switched on when sensors embedded in a lamppost detected the presence of shoppers?

Connected sensors can have the capacity to report their electricity usage and could also provide valuable data about footfall trends in the area. Upgraded street furniture like lights could provide multiple functions, like additional cell coverage to boost mobile signals, or free Wi-Fi.

Little by little, the urban environment around us is getting smarter. This is just the beginning.