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Industry Insight: Six reasons why streetlights are the superheroes of smart cities

The humble streetlight goes unnoticed most of the time. Widely introduced in the early part of the 20th century to help keep citizens safe, streetlights are now accepted roadside fixtures that barely merit a second glance. But these quiet servants are slowly being transformed into the true superheroes of smart cities.

Streetlights all over the world are being bestowed with new powers that will make them integral to the operation of smart cities.

Proponents of smart cities want to harness the power of the Internet of Things (IoT) by creating a network of connected and intelligent devices that, by sharing data, will enable improvements in areas such as energy efficiency, security, transport, accessibility, health and pollution. Examples include sensors within waste bins that will communicate to a local control room when they are full, thereby reducing unnecessary collections.

So how do simple streetlights become so central to this sophisticated equation? Well, one of the challenges facing the development of smart cities is to find a source of funding for the required technology deployments. It is a key reason why smart cities are likely to evolve incrementally rather than arriving in a fully-formed state. To overcome this, it makes sense to exploit existing infrastructure.

There are 304 million streetlights in the world today, including over 5 million in the UK alone. But it doesn’t end there. The global number of streetlights is expected to rise to 352 million by 2025, with billions being invested. Their ubiquity is their strength, and augmented with new capabilities, they could be a powerful force for good.

The US-based Internet of Things Institute recently stated: “Light poles may well follow a trajectory similar to that of mobile phones. It wasn’t so long ago that mobile phones were suited for one purpose only – making calls. Now, making a phone call has become almost secondary to all of a smart phone’s other capabilities. Similarly, while the light poles of yesteryear provided only illumination, modern-day light poles can serve as multifunctional smart city nodes.”

Here are six ways that streetlights can serve smart cities:

1. Switching to LED

The switching of streetlights from high intensity discharge (HID) lamps to LED technology is a fast-growing trend as civic leaders embrace the advantages of longer lifespans and reduced energy consumption. This is significant when you consider that outdoor public lighting typically accounts for 40% of a city’s total electricity costs, and that savings of around 50% can be realised by adopting LEDs. However, those savings could rise to 80% with the addition of web connection to central management systems. This allows performance data from the streetlight to be relayed in real-time, reducing the burden of manual maintenance and servicing.


2. EV charging points

The popularity of electric vehicles is surging, with new launches from large automotive manufacturers and growing political and economic pressures being placed on the use of petrol and diesel cars. However, the availability of charging points remains a problem. The UK has approximately 126,000 at present but will need more as demand rises. Streetlights can serve as charging points and are already doing so in parts of London and a number of other European cities.


3. Traffic management

Movement sensors or smart video cameras within streetlights enable monitoring of traffic flows. Large volumes of traffic can be detected and vehicles rerouted via connected signage, to reduce congestion. The same principle can be applied to the management of car parking, navigation, pedestrian crossings and busy junctions. The Denmark city of Aarhus is one of many urban areas deploying smart technology to enhance traffic management.


4. Wi-Fi signals

The height of streetlights gives them a significant strategic advantage in smart cities, enabling them to act rather like an aerial. On that basis, streetlights could double up as distributors of wi-fi or mobile data, providing people, essential public services and objects with high-quality web connectivity. This is one of the concepts being trialled in Glasgow as part of a wider Future City initiative.


5. Detecting pollution

New figures from the World Health Organisation suggest the air in 44 UK towns and cities is too dangerous to breathe. Efforts to address this issue globally are reliant upon the collection of accurate, localised, real-time data. Equipped with the appropriate sensors, streetlights are capable of serving as collectors of essential information. For example, miniature air-pollution sensors the size of matchboxes are being trialled on streetlights in Melbourne. If successful, the city’s network of air-monitoring stations will be expanded from 18 to thousands. The same principle can be applied to the monitoring of other parameters such as temperature, humidity, noise, radiation, wind and ambient light.


6. Safety and security

Anyone familiar with recent headlines will know that people living and working in urban centres are increasingly vulnerable to safety threats, ranging from acts of terrorism to extreme weather, civil unrest and violent crime. The smart city of the future will be better prepared than ever to detect and respond to such emergencies. Streetlights are ideally positioned to provide a fixture for smart cameras that are able to transmit images to a control room in real time and potentially identify danger early in conjunction with software applications such as facial recognition tools. Crime detection could also be enhanced with a wider network of camera coverage. To improve the safety of citizens, lighting levels could automatically be increased in response to certain predetermined triggers. There is also the potential to equip lampposts with digital signage or speakers, which would enable safety information to be communicated. In this way, streetlights can be the sentinels of smart cities.


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Nick Henderson, PR Account Director, Technical Associates Group (TAG)

Follow Nick Henderson on Twitter or LinkedIn, or contact him via e-mail.

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