Chattanooga is harnessing IoT technology and quickly becoming a city of the future.
It feels too early to wake up, but the alarm is synced with a traffic app, so you know you’d better get moving. As you walk into the kitchen, the coffee pot takes notice and begins to brew. The lights in your bedroom have already automatically switched off to save energy, and now that you’re awake, the smart thermostat begins to slowly increase the temperature to 72 degrees. As the coffee brews, you glance at your phone to review your daily dose of data: sleep patterns for the last week, heart rate, screen time, how many miles you’ve run. Driving to the office, your GPS redirects you to an alternate route, dodging an accident on the highway. The traffic lights respond to vehicles as they come, beaming information back to the city for analysis. When you arrive at the office, you realize that you forgot to lock the front door. No worries. You punch a few buttons on your phone and lock it remotely.
The spaces between the digital world and the physical world are quickly connecting, and we have a name for the bridge – the Internet of Things (IoT). From smart watches to smart grids, responsive traffic lights to GPS, even if you don’t realize it, IoT is likely a part of your everyday life. Of course, IoT isn’t new – sensors and connected devices have been around for years – but as technology rapidly improves, more physical objects are being connected than ever before.
Put simply, the Internet of Things, or IoT, is the network of billions of physical devices that have an on/off switch and are connected to the internet. These objects are often outfitted with sensors that allow them to send and receive data. Typically, IoT only refers to objects usually not thought of as “connected.” Thus, though your laptop and your iPhone are not part of the Internet of Things (although they interact with it), the shoes equipped to count your steps are.
In the business realm, grocery stores use IoT devices to monitor the temperature and humidity of containers shipping perishable foods. Freight companies can track the locations of every vehicle in their fleet in real time, allowing them to adjust routes accordingly. They can even log patterns in acceleration and braking data to analyze how fuel conscious and safe their drivers are. Farmers use IoT systems to test soil and report which fields need what fertilizer, while IoT-equipped drones allow mining and utility companies to collect data from hard-to-reach sites.
Smart homes are equipped with smart thermostats that learn your usage patterns and reduce energy consumption, alarm clocks that sync with real-time traffic patterns to wake you up when the moment is right, lightbulbs that react when you enter a room, and doorbell security cameras that feed live video right to your phone.
Digital data collection has even colonized our bodies: Smart watches track your steps, speed, and GPS location, syncing with programs on your phone or computer. Pacemakers beam medical data to vigilant doctors, while high-tech hearing aids can connect directly to your smart TV or phone, allowing you to personalize volume from different devices.
Often, the individual pieces of the IoT can be quite simple: a carbon dioxide sensor, for example. But the strength of IoT lies in the sum of its parts. Thousands of sensors of all kinds incorporated into a network can yield billions of data points that can be analyzed to provide complex insights to individuals, businesses, and even cities.
Smart cities integrate IoT into their infrastructure, gathering data, then using that data to improve quality of life for their residents.
It wasn’t long after the advent of the internet that people started dreaming about networking and controlling everyday items. In the early ‘80s, programmers at Carnegie Melon University connected a Coca-Cola machine to the internet, allowing them to check remotely whether drinks were stocked and whether they were cold. It’s one of the first known examples of an IoT device in action. The development of RFID (radio-frequency identification system), which identifies and tracks “tagged” objects remotely, marked another major stepping stone. The early seeds of the concept were in place, but the term “Internet of Things” was not coined until 1999, when tech pioneer Kevin Ashton first came up with the wording while researching RFID applications for Procter & Gamble.
In the years since, IoT has developed rapidly. In 2010, Google began harvesting Street View data, connecting the digital world to the physical. In 2012, China made IoT development a central feature of its five-year plan, calling it a strategic move for economic momentum. Tech conferences and trade magazines began ogling the latest smart washing machines and data-churning cars. And,
by all accounts, IoT is only getting bigger.
Of all of IoT’s vast and diverse applications, some of the most exciting come in the form of smart cities. As populations surge in urban centers across the globe, concurrent problems arise – traffic congestion, crime, waste management, energy, and more. Smart cities integrate IoT into their infrastructure by gathering data with sensors and cameras strategically placed around the city, then they use that data to become safer and more efficient, save money, and improve quality of life for their residents.
Songdo, South Korea, installed RFID tags in every car in the city, allowing officials to monitor and adjust traffic patterns. The result is a faster flow of traffic and, with fewer cars idling in rush hour, decreased pollution. Copenhagen, Denmark, implemented a similar system to monitor and improve bike routes. Amsterdam, Netherlands, has tested grid-integrated solar panels and batteries in urban homes, reducing stress to the electric grid and reducing homeowners’ long-term energy costs. Las Vegas, Nevada, partnered with IT and networking company Cisco to set up cameras and sensors in the city’s innovation district, collecting and analyzing data on everything from water consumption to lighting, waste management, parking, security, and environmental impact.
Other applications include smart elevators – an IoT innovation that has saved enormous amounts of time for the workforce in skyscraper-dense New York City – gunshot detection technology, and smart parking apps that allow drivers to check ahead of time for open parking spaces. The cities of tomorrow are here, and they’re only getting better.
The good news? Chattanooga is riding the smart city wave into the future with the best of them.
At the core of Chattanooga’s efforts to become a smart city is the smart grid – an amazing example of IoT in action. The publicly owned Electric Power Board (EPB) began building the smart grid in the mid-2000s, deploying a fiber optic network with thousands of automated meters that generated more data from every customer. Taking advantage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, an economic stimulus measure, EPB received a grant covering $111.6 million of the $226.7 million project. The federal funding sped up deployment, and the smart grid was launched in 2010.
“On the old electromechanical meters we were reading about 11 million reads per year,” explains EPB vice president of strategic research Jim Ingraham. “When we deployed the automated meters connected to the fiber, suddenly we had hundreds of millions of data points.”
All that real-time data allows EPB to look at usage patterns, get better forecasts for predicted system load, and make smarter decisions about how to satisfy the load in an efficient way. The system also lets EPB see exactly where problems are in the electric system, enabling them to deploy crews to fix problems faster. When a severe storm swept through Chattanooga in 2014, taking down power lines and wreaking havoc, the smart grid proved its worth.
“If we had not had the automated switching, it would have knocked seven out of 10 customers in Chattanooga out of electricity,” says Ingraham. “Instead, it knocked out three in 10, because the automated switching brought the other four on automatically. We were able to get the power back on for those who lost it in less than 48 hours.” He adds, “The Department of Energy did a study of that storm and said that it saved the business community and taxpayers around $24 million.”
In deploying the fiber optics network, EPB and the city knew it could also be used to provide inexpensive, lightning-fast internet to city residents and businesses – up to 1 gigabyte per second in 2010 (10 gigabytes per second in 2015), the fastest in America at the time. That’s when Chattanooga began branding itself “the Gig City” and really investing in the local startup scene. An entrepreneurial ecosystem emerged, much of it grounded in tech and dependent on the Gig. The fiber network became an economic development engine and the backbone on which the rest of the smart city was to be built.
“Chattanooga has the best infrastructure to handle smart technology that you can imagine,” says Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.
Already, the Chattanooga Department
of Transportation (CDOT) has installed cameras in some intersections to monitor traffic flow. The resulting data allows them to analyze how cars, pedestrians, and bicycle traffic all move together, helping them reduce congestion and improve safety. More efficient traffic patterns also mean fewer cars stuck in traffic, pumping pollution into the air. It’s an IoT solution that simultaneously helps the environment and saves time for busy Chattanoogans.
“We shouldn’t do anything just because it’s smart,’” says Berke. “We should do it because it provides a better quality of life for our residents.”
While some IoT applications are happening already in Chattanooga, many more are still in the research phase. And according to Berke, Chattanooga is becoming “a place that is recognized for using our technology to be a testbed for the next big, smart solutions.”
In October 2018, the City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, EPB, Erlanger Hospital, Co.Lab, and the Enterprise Center announced the formation of the Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative, which aims to collaborate in pursuing and funding smart city research. Much of this research is being spearheaded by UTC’s new Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP), led by Dr. Mina Sartipi. CUIP is researching IoT and smart city innovations related to everything from transportation to health care, energy, public safety, water, and waste. The smart city work began simply as a research topic at UTC, but then the school was awarded two National Science Foundation Research grants to work on applications that need gigabit internet.
“That’s when the collaboration between the university and the city started growing significantly,” says Sartipi. “We were doing a lot of these things in our labs, but we needed a testbed … a place where we could test some of the algorithms we were developing.”
One of CUIP’s primary research projects is on autonomous vehicles. “How can we improve drivers’ awareness and the safety of everyone by making cars communicate with each other and with the infrastructure?” Sartipi says.
Sartipi envisions, and is testing, a future in which IoT tech installed in cars and traffic lights would allow them to “talk” to each other, sharing data in a network – more like a single organism than individual vehicles. Rather than each autonomous vehicle “seeing” only what is directly in front of it, it would also be able to see what the rest of the connected cars, traffic lights, and other smart technology see. If the lead car in a pack stops for a pedestrian, the rest of the cars would be able to react to that pedestrian simultaneously, rather than reacting only to the actions of the car in front of them.
Other ongoing research projects are delving into applying smart city IoT to improve drinking water and storm water management. Faculty from the computer science department are developing IoT technology that can monitor underground pipelines.
EPB is driving research as well. When Ingraham talks about the future of Chattanooga as a smart city, he talks of homes equipped with IoT smart thermostats, water heaters, and lights. He also envisions a power grid distributed among renewable energy stations – a cleaner, more resilient, more affordable power supply.
“We know statistically that a third of all the electricity we use is wasted,” Ingraham says. “Whatever we can do to use these technologies to eliminate that waste allows us to reduce the cost of electricity.
“For the last five years we have been building models and learning all we can about these technologies so that we can model the economic impact,” he adds. “We are moving toward that future – not just dreaming about it. “
There’s huge economic potential to all this research as well. As the technology improves, opportunities abound for entrepreneurs to begin developing products and businesses that help cities, companies, and individuals manage their data and harness IoT’s potential.
The Internet of Things is here to stay, and it’s only getting bigger. And Chattanooga, equipped with the smart grid and Gig, a public-private partnership fostering innovative research, and a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, is uniquely equipped to harness IoT technology and become a smart city on the cutting edge.
“The coming changes are going to be huge,” says Berke. “And we need to take advantage of those in a way that makes people’s lives better.” CS