Far from Silicon Valley, a big bet on the Internet of things

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In Australia, a twist on grid computing paves the way to the city of the future -- and creates new opportunities for developers

Welcome to Silicon Outback, mate.

Newcastle, a one-time industrial center on the east coast of Australia, is using the Internet of things to restore its faded downtown and make life easier for its 160,000 residents. Forget refrigerators that text you when you're out of milk; Newcastle’s IoT implementation is truly useful: It controls street lighting, helps drivers find parking spaces, and clues merchants into foot-traffic patterns.

To be sure, the Kaooma Project is a pilot program, and given the immature state of much of the technology behind it glitches will be inevitable. But that doesn’t faze the city’s forward-looking mayor, Brad Luke. “Taking advantage of technology that’s about to occur is smarter than just looking at existing technology,” he said during a phone call from Chicago, where he and other city officials are attending Cisco’s IoT World Forum.

Interestingly, the cutting-edge experiment relies on a new twist to older tech that never really took off: grid computing. Sensors embedded around downtown connect wirelessly to a series of so-called nBoxes, a system-on-a-chip utilizing an ARM processor and a field programmable gate array. Developed by Silicon Valley-based VIMOC Technologies, the nBoxes are also connected to each other via Wi-Fi to form a computing grid that processes the sensor data and beams the results to the cloud.

By pushing processing to the edge of the network, a lot less bandwidth is required and the load on overall computing resources is reduced, says VIMOC CEO Tarik Hammadou, who calls his company’s platform Landscape Computing.

Smarter parking

Parking is the bane of every city’s downtown. Cruising for spaces wastes time and fuel, worsens congestion, and spews carbon into the atmosphere. Rather than build expensive parking garages, Newcastle is experimenting with a solution based on VIMOC’s technology.

The city has embedded dozens of sensors in parking spaces around downtown. By combining optical and magnetic data, the sensors get a good read on whether a car is actually parked in a given spot. That data then goes to the nBoxes in the downtown area and from there to the cloud.

During the first phase of Kaooma, the data is used to help city planners understand parking patterns and usage. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how parking data could be leveraged and made much more useful. Before long, a mature system could easily pay for itself, says Luke.

He pictures sensors that keep track of how long cars have been parked. When time is almost up, the data could be used to tell the motorist (via smartphone) to move or get a ticket. The data could also be beamed to parking control officers who would no longer have to cruise around looking for expired meters. The result: The city would save money on fuel costs and make do with fewer meter maids (or blokes).

With the right app, motorists could also get a real-time view of available parking. To make that possible, VIMOC recently published APIs. The architecture of the boxes is open, though the operating system and “contextual computing” algorithms are proprietary.

Then there’s lighting. When no one is around, why have street lights burning at full intensity? Newcastle is experimenting with a sensor network that dims the lights when streets are empty and turns them up when a pedestrian comes into view, a win for energy conservation and public safety.

Foot-traffic sensors combine visual data with temperature readings to tell merchants what’s happening in the shopping district; updates are sent to them via Twitter and through an online database.

Costs are modest

You might think this city-of-the-future project would be a budget-buster, but the costs of the network aren’t so high: The nBoxes, which are built from off-the-shelf components, will cost about $50 when produced in volume, says Hammadou. Embedding a sensor in a parking space costs about $250, says the Mayor. (A similar, though smaller, trial is under way in Palo Alto, Calif.)

There are other barriers to consider, though: Someone has to pay for deployment, even if the costs aren’t huge, and city governments, not always as progressive as Newcastle’s, have to sign on. One possible solution: a public/private partnership, in which a merchant’s association or neighborhood foots the bill for a parking system or lighting controls in one area of the city.

More broadly, IoT still faces major questions about connectivity -- think how much bandwidth will be needed to connect billions of new devices -- privacy, and even global warming. That's because all of those projected 20 billion devices -- plus all the other digital stuff already in use -- will have to be powered by something and connected to a powered network, which is, in turn, connected to a powered data center, Cisco CTO Dave Ward told me last year.

Still, it is heartening to see local governments utilizing the much hyped, and often frivolous, Internet of things for the public good.

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