Chicago, Argonne Lab deploy Internet of super sensors

The city of Chicago is partnering with the Argonne National Lab to develop a network of large, remote sensing platforms capable of gathering data on traffic congestion, air quality, buildings' energy consumption and the direction of gunshots on city streets.

Federal, state and local agencies are just now beginning to explore applications of the Internet of Things (IoT), which, despite its build-up as “the next big thing,” actually seems destined to live up to the billing.

The IoT comprises networks of remote sensors capable of detecting everything from traffic to air quality, to buildings' energy consumption, to the direction of gunshots on city streets. And governments see plenty of opportunities to exploit the technology’s efficiency, energy and cost saving advantages.

But the real action in implementing IoT in a public sector environment is taking place in collaborations between federal research labs and the cities where they are based. One of the projects, a joint venture of the city of Chicago, the Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago, is considered ready to move from the prototype to deployment stage, according to a national lab team leader.

While the project, dubbed the “Array of Things,” was initially aimed at monitoring air quality, said Charlie Catlett, team leader and senior computer scientist at Argonne, it is capable of much, much more.

Ultimately, sensors deployed around Chicago in the Array of Things will not only be able to monitor air quality block-by-block, but applications that tap into its data will be able to alert users to areas with traffic congestion, pedestrian traffic or even icy patches on sidewalks. City planners will also use the data to work on reducing vehicle emissions by controlling traffic flows.

According to Catlett, the first set of boxes being deployed – about the size of a briefcase and attached to light posts – are filled to capacity with  17 sensors, including those that measure temperature, humidity, light, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and vibration. The boxes also include a sound sensor and an infrared camera that can pick up surface temperatures.

"We had been working here at Argonne with remote sensing since 2005 or so," said Catlett.  "We developed a remote sensing platform that is designed for sensors or cameras in locations where you can't easily get back there to fix things, so they have to be self-healing and very autonomous."

Catlett saw an opportunity to work with the city of Chicago to help both researchers and residents. "With the movement toward smart cities, a lot of research groups and companies will want to experiment with urban-scale technology where you need to deploy something," he said.

“I suggested that if we could deploy a network of secure enclosures with power and Internet in Chicago then we could essentially host the development and prototyping and research associated with next-generation technologies," Catlett said.

The city agreed to place and deliver power to 500 of the boxes produced by Catlett's team. Even before fully deploying the first set of boxes, the team is preparing to expand the reach of the Array of Things. 

"Right now we are in a six-month force march to be able to produce these things in quantity – going from handmade prototypes to mass-manufacturable design," said Catlett.  "At last count, we have 11 other cities that expressed interest in them."

Eventually, the sensor boxes will be solar powered.  And Catlett's team is working to make them smaller and more intelligent.  "We want to be able to do as much data processing at the node as we can before we transmit data," he said.  "Part of the strategy is to reduce the amount of communication you need.  If you can process right and on the node you can actually get much more bang for your buck out of these kinds of sensors.  That's where we are headed. We view this as a programmable device, not just a set of sensors to deploy."

According to Catlett, data collected by the Array of Things will be open to the public. Data will also be available through Plenar.io, a centralized hub for open datasets from around the world that was created by the Urban Center for Computation and Development, a joint project of Argonne and the University of Chicago

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