Smart technology is infiltrating our lives from all directions. We have Amazon Alexa, smart phones, smart appliances, and smart cars; all of which help build on the trend for smart cities. Utility companies and municipalities are beginning to adapt smart technology to increase safety, save money, and enhance the relationship with their customers or residents. However, before diving into a new technology, utilities and municipalities may seek the assistance of subject matter experts (SME’s) and other outside experienced resources to help them navigate the inner workings of the new technology, guide them in making the choices best suited for their needs, and lay the groundwork for future technological advancements that would get them to achieve the goal of a ‘smart city.’
A smart city is a city that uses “information and communication technologies to enhance the quality and performance of urban services such as energy, transportation and utilities in order to reduce resource consumption, waste and overall costs.” Smart cities aim to be responsive, aware and alert in absorbing the necessary information and transmitting it to the end user. Consider a smart garbage can for example. It fills with waste and once it reaches a specified weight or height it sends a secure alert to the waste management company via a communication network notifying them that it needs to be emptied. The way in which this information is sent from the garbage can to the waste company is through a communication network. This communication network is crucial to the success of smart technology. There are two major types of communication networks that can be leveraged for smart technology communication – the mesh network and point-to-point telecommunication.
The mesh network is a wireless communication network. Each device (streetlights, garbage cans, water meters, etc.) has a node that acts as its own mini network with its own range of communication. Each node communicates or ‘talks’ to the devices around it to send and receive data. The more devices you add, the stronger the network becomes. Imagine a grid connecting 1,000 street lights deployed throughout a town. Now imagine adding another 1,000 lights amongst the existing ones; the grid becomes more condensed with smaller squares.
While being wireless is a significant plus for mesh networks, so is the capacity for a high volume of nodes. The more nodes on the network, the stronger the network becomes, and the more options that are available for communicating and sending data. If one streetlight is unable to communicate to a streetlight on its left, it can communicate to the streetlight on its right or to the garbage can across the street.
Each device in a mesh network uses others to pass data and confirm working order. However, because each device has its own network, it does open itself up to cybersecurity concerns. If one device is compromised, all other devices on that mesh network could be impacted as well. The mesh network solution is lower in cost due to limited infrastructure needs but has a potential increase in cyber security costs. Devices need to be tracked and monitored from manufacturing through delivery to installation to ensure the devices remain secure. An alternative to the mesh network solution would be a point-to-point telecommunications network.
Point-to-point networks utilize an existing cellular infrastructure (telecommunications network) to act as the central device or ‘parent.’ Each singular device, or ‘child,’ communicates to the central structure, or ‘parent,’ which in turn sends the data to the end user. For example, all cell phones are considered ‘children.’ To make a phone call, the call must be routed through the ‘parent’ to reach the receiving ‘child.’ Channeling all information through the ‘parent’ makes point-to-point networks less of a security risk. If a ‘child’ device is compromised, the ‘parent’ adds another line of defense to halt the spread of a cybersecurity threat. Point-to-point communication is a more secure way of communication since there are fewer devices with the potential to be compromised; cybersecurity can focus on 50 central ‘parent’ devices instead of 1,000 or 10,000 ‘children.’ However, having physical infrastructure does have its fallbacks. The cost of renting space on existing infrastructure is high and the cost of buying/leasing land to build your own infrastructure is even higher.
Mesh networks are a popular solution when launching a smart grid; utilities and municipalities across the country have chosen to use this method of communication due to the lower costs and the ability to handle many devices. Nevertheless, with smart communication comes new problems that need to be solved, monitored and tracked. Knowing how to handle these new issues is vital to getting the most out of your smart technology. Existing business processes need to change, new processes need to be put in place, and resources may need to be rearranged to absorb the technology. Installing smart street lights, smart garbage cans, smart meters (water, electric, gas, parking, etc.…), to name a few, enhance the built environment and build a network of communication and data. Smart cities are the way of the future and knowing how to embrace the technology and ask the necessary questions is key to using the technology to its fullest potential.
For additional information on incorporating smart technology into your next utility or municipal project please contact Shannon Hackett.