How Streetlights Are Making Cities Smarter

Smart Streetlight Feature

What’s on every city street, connected to the electric grid, and would be a perfect place to put the sensors we need to collect data and run networked city systems? Streetlights aren’t the first thing that most people think of when they think “smart city,” but the hundreds of millions of poles currently strung through cities worldwide are increasingly being retooled to act as IoT data collection points.

They’re detecting empty parking spaces, measuring air quality, listening for gunshots, and even pointing facial recognition cameras at you. Creepy parts aside, the future is looking pretty bright!

Intelligent lighting: saving energy and making you feel special

Smart Streetlight Path
Tvilight smart streetlights

You’re walking down a quiet, dark street. The light you’re under and the few in front of you are all brightly lit, but you see that down the road the streetlights are just giving off a dim glow. As you move closer, though, they light up, gradually reaching full strength. At the same time, the lights behind you begin to fade.

Smart Streetlight Intelligent Lighting
Tvilight concept

Nope, you’re not magical – the lights are just detecting your presence and letting the other lights in the network know. This way lights don’t have to be on at full illumination all the time, reducing power usage, saving money, and helping the environment. Intelligent street lighting systems of various kinds are already being implemented in several cities (and on some highways), with places like Oslo, Miami, Paris, Madrid, and others reporting energy cost savings of up to 70 percent.

Helping you find a parking space and fixing traffic

Drivers looking for parking spots can be a major cause of congestion in cities, and it’s not exactly a relaxing experience for anyone. Streetlights are right next to street parking, though, so visual sensors can detect whether or not a parking space is free and communicate this information to drivers via an app. They can even help parking meters enforce parking rules. Cities in the UK, Germany, the US, and elsewhere are even incorporating electric car charging directly into the streetlights. They can even use visual sensors to help monitor road conditions, like checking for black ice.

Smart Streetlight Signify Jakarta
Signify street lighting in Jakarta, Indonesia

The data these lights collect on parking will be able to help improve city services in the long run, but that’s not all they might keep an eye on. Visual sensors can also track traffic patterns, both automobile and pedestrian, and allow them to make smart decisionS to divert traffic to less congested areas.

Cameras and microphones; smile for the streetlight!

Singapore is one of the biggest proponents of smart lamppost technology, with their “lamppost-as-a-platform” project refitting thousands of lampposts with facial recognition cameras that are meant to fight crime and terrorism. It’ll also use crowd analytics for other purposes. Of course, this raises privacy flags similar to the ones popping up with similar systems in China.

Smart Streetlight Facial Recognition

Less creepy are the gunshot detection systems that are going into lampposts across the US. These systems have already been in place for a while to help police respond to violent incidents more quickly, but now they’re going on streetlights – not too much new here.

What’s the weather like?

The weather from the meteorological station closest to you may be a little different from what’s actually happening outside your door, and things like air quality have been documented to vary quite a bit, even on a city block level. Temperature, pressure, humidity, air quality, radiation, precipitation, and even wind sensors can be put onto streetlights to get ultra-local weather data. Now you really won’t have to step outside to see if it’s raining.

Smart Streetlight Signify Revo
One of Signify’s smart streetlights

Of all these perks, though, pollution monitoring is probably one of the most potentially useful applications, as many large cities worldwide struggle with this and new negative effects are continually being discovered even at relatively low levels.

It’s all about the analytics

Smart Streetlight Signify Citytouch
Signify intelligent street lighting

The boost to public services is nice, but probably the biggest perk of these smart streetlights is the highly local data we can collect to help identify and fix a lot of the biggest problems we face in cities: traffic congestion, air pollution, safety, energy usage, etc.

It’s great that IoT lights can find us a parking space, but the ultimate goal is for the data they collect to help city planners reroute traffic flows and plan additional parking. And measuring air pollution won’t magically make it go away, but being able to figure out where it’s the worst can help neighborhoods fight it more effectively.

The lights themselves are a nice step towards smart cities, but they can only do so much – we have to actually act on the data we collect.  

Image credits: Cisco Newsroom, Tvilight (via CNN), Project-Nuenen-19, CityTouch Jakarta, Illuminated Streets at Night

2 comments

  1. It all sounds SO modern, benign and idyllic. Until you realize (I hope that you do) that those “smart” lampposts will be used for surveillance and tracking of everybody.

    1. Oh, I definitely do–here’s my nod to it in the article:
      – “Of course, this raises privacy flags similar to the ones popping up with similar systems in China.”

      I write pretty extensively on privacy issues surrounding data and AI–this time it was mostly just about streetlights though 🙂

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