Keeping smart cities protected – and always connected

Author : Nick Rimmer, Vice President of Product Management at P2i

04 June 2018

For smart cities to achieve their true potential, the relevant digital infrastructure of wireless networks and embedded hardware, software and sensors will need to be installed in hard-to-access areas – that need to be protected from the elements.

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With the birth of machine learning, the IoT, and the impending roll-out of 5G and commercial artificial intelligence (AI), our cities are evolving at a dramatic rate and transforming into connected behemoths. The smart city of tomorrow will, of course, be built on a complex ecosystem of embedded electronic devices and software systems…

A smart city can be loosely defined as an urban area that uses different types of embedded electronic sensors to supply data back to centralised hubs, which are then used to efficiently manage assets and resources. The number of smart cities around the world is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years: the latest UN forecasts predict that, by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in smart cities.

While a faulty smart sensor in the home can be inconvenient, if connected technologies in our cities fail, then the consequences and impact are considerably more severe. It will become essential to maintain connectivity in an urban environment and keep the network ‘always on’.

Smart cities will have embedded sensors everywhere.

These sensors will take in and react to a constant stream of information about energy and water usage, air quality, travel patterns and traffic flow, noise levels and human movement patterns – to name just a few of the myriad use cases. They will take the form of temperature and motion sensors, microphones, cameras, chemical detection systems and so on – all of which will share feedback to businesses and local authorities with crucial information on how the city is functioning and where efficiencies can be gained.

Building cities from the ground up

Integrating total connectivity into centuries-old infrastructure naturally comes with a number of challenges, not least of which is retrofitting technology to fit into legacy systems or wholesale rip-and-replacing assets with more hi-tech alternatives. Therefore, many of the lessons about how to breathe new life into cities around the world are being learnt on brownfield sites, where it is possible for engineers to build the infrastructure of the future from the ground up.

Case in point: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google, is building a new smart city and, as part of this project, will pilot the redevelopment of 12 acres of south-eastern waterfront in Toronto. In just a few years, it will be a technologically-sophisticated community called ‘Quayside’. But this is a location that can experience extremes of weather: Toronto has some form of precipitation falling on average 145 days out of the year, while experiencing 115cm of snowfall. The city is also on the waterfront of Lake Ontario and has a recent history of flooding, leading to millions of dollars’ worth of devastation to waterfront areas.

So imagine the impact if a smart city is developed, but those building it cannot access and distribute the data or reliable information flow they need to analyse and run it efficiently because of the damage caused to its increasingly digital infrastructure by the effects of water damage...

The right tools for the job

When planning the development of smart cities, architects must consider the requirements for the resilience of the technology that is being deployed and, particularly, how well it will stand up to the elements, so that they can factor this into the design and maintenance costs. By considering these requirements, the technology that keeps these cities running will function for longer, and be more efficient and affordable.

Furthermore, many sensors need to interact with the outside world and may not function effectively in boxes closed up by mechanical gaskets. This highlights that a different technology is required, especially in outdoor environments.

Increasingly, the solution required to protect our smart cities lies in the application of hydrophobic coatings, whether it is for technologies at a component or product level (depending on the level of protection required). Such coatings are applied through a low-pressure pulsed plasma deposition process that covers devices or components inside and out, with a nanoscale coating chemically bonded to the surface.

The technology can be applied at the end of a production cycle, but increasingly, manufacturers are integrating it at multiple stages of the production process across a range of electronics. The other major advantage for hydrophobic coatings over physical gaskets and o-rings built into devices is the failure rate, which is higher than many would expect with physical protection. What’s worse is that when they do fail, gaskets and the like are not very good at letting liquid back out of a device, meaning that there is prolonged exposure, causing more corrosion and damage.

The connected future

Gartner predicts that by 2020 there will be 20.4 billion IoT devices deployed around the world, and many of these will be the sensors embedded into smart cities. Many of these sensors will be low value units, so it could be argued that the cost of protecting them would be too high, if the cost of replacing them was nominal. But consider the cost of servicing those devices if they are inadequately protected from the elements: for smart cities to work, they need to be relatively self-sufficient.

Having an army of engineers on standby to service a city – replacing and repairing the hundreds of thousands of sensors and other smart devices that the city now relies on – is not only impractical, but it is prohibitively expensive. This would dramatically reduce the efficiency and usefulness of a connected ecosystem.

Safety first

Even putting aside economics, the cities of the future must be always on and always connected, especially given the safety implications of sensors that fail, not sending the right information at the right time.

Consider, in particular, the predicted effects of climate change, with Northern Europe expecting to experience warmer winters, more rain and ever-increasing cloudbursts. Storms, too, are predicted to become even more powerful, and sea levels to continue to rise.

If an increasing amount of trust is placed in embedded autonomous systems, then they must be robust enough to operate in all circumstances. If and when the weather becomes extreme, we will need to be more dependent than ever on the smart infrastructure – and of course the data that binds the city, and ourselves, together.

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