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Cover story: Smartening up the city with smart metering

While smart metering, smart street lighting, traffic control and pollution monitoring are all elements of the smart city, further benefits accrue when they are interconnected. By Louise Joselyn.

Smart meters do not make a smart city. The essential aims of the smart city are to improve the quality of life of its citizens while contributing to environmental sustainability targets through efficient use of resources and energy savings. This relies on making intelligent use of data gathered from around the city and from a range of interconnected objects.

The critical challenge is the communications network needed to collate and manage the data, together with systems to analyse it intelligently. Even here, the first difficulty is not necessarily the technology; creating such a vast network requires huge investment.

Not many organisations have the long term vision and the resources for such an undertaking. Like most telecommunications operators, France Telecom Orange is looking for new business opportunities to extend its fixed and mobile telecommunications interests.

Two of Orange's 18 worldwide research labs are in France; in Sophia Antipolis and Grenoble. These labs are focused on machine to machine (M2M) communications, which includes a Smart City initiative. Since 2007, the company has been trialling a combination of technologies in pilot projects at Cagne-sur-mer, a city with 40,000 residents located near Nice, and in Grenoble city centre.

At Cagne, the pilot project has involved the deployment of sensors to monitor, measure and even control certain aspects of the city environment, including water metering in public buildings, street lighting control and the environment. Orange has partnered with a number of third party hardware and software technology suppliers as well as environmental monitoring service provider Véolia and the town council.

Orange has been instrumental in setting up the data collection network, but its primary task and interest, according to Laurent Londeix, Regional Director PACA France Telecom Orange, based at Sophia Antipolis, is to set up the back haul network. In addition, the company has been developing software modelling programmes to analyse the information and facilitating links to the 'urban platform', including building a central 'dashboard' for visualisation, monitoring and control. The project has drawn on the resources and skills of Orange's researchers at Sophia and Grenoble.

"The power consumption of sensors was, and still is, the biggest issue," Londeix confirmed.

In the first phase of the experiment, wireless networks were installed to cover street lighting on the sea front at Cagnes and a number of environmental monitoring sensors covering sea temperature, pollution detectors for CO2, NO2 and SO2, noise meters, a uv sensor and a weather station (wind speed and direction, air pressure and temperature).

The two way uhf sensors came from a variety of sources. "Some were easy to find and relatively low cost," Londeix said. "Seawater sensors were more of a problem as they have to survive severe conditions." Not all the sensors were digital, so a/d converters and dedicated interfaces had to be provided.

Some experimentation was involved to establish where best to locate the sensors, how far distant the repeaters could be and how many repeaters were required. This varied depending on the type of sensor, the location and the network topology. Trials with solar panels to power the repeaters worked surprisingly well in some cases. "We've learnt some valuable lessons on the limitations of certain sensors, repeaters, the distances between them and their power requirements," Londeix explained.

Orange's Grenoble team took the lead role in building the gateway for all the sensor data and the networking aspects. André Bottaro is the M2M Project Director. "Ultra low power, long range wireless sensor networks are essential for connecting huge numbers of objects on a city scale," he said, adding that simplicity, scalability and flexibility were just as important. Typically this requires a mesh network topology for its self configuration, secure rerouting and self healing properties. Orange is pushing for the adoption of IPv6 in this type of application. "It will provide the ideal opportunity to converge with the global [internet] network," Bottaro said.

The communications protocol has to be uhf, bidirectional and secure. Orange Labs has had to support multiple protocols, but is now hoping to standardise on the 864MHz Wavenis protocol. "It is the most efficient we could find on the market," Bottaro said. Initially proprietary, Wavenis has been 'open' since 2008, with Cisco, Orange and Véolia driving a strong industrial alliance. Working closely with IEEE802.15.4g, which is developing a Zigbee like protocol for long range applications, the hope is that either Wavenis will be adopted by the IEEE or, if not, Wavenis will be adapted to meet the new standard. For connection to the infrastructure network, Orange Labs started with GSM/2G/GPRS, subsequently upgraded to 3G, while the research team is also investigating satellite, dsn and adsl technologies.

The development team at Sophia has created an online, colourful and informative control dashboard for supervision of existing smart city services at Cagne-sur-mer. The need for forwarding data to third parties, and for distributing specific data to public information panels, is also being taken into account. In an aerial map view format, operators can check and control the street lighting or automatic watering systems, for example.

Indeed, all sensors deployed in the city communicate with the central server. Double clicking on a sensor allows the user to see the basic set up parameters, battery life and power consumption. Communication is two way, so the supervisor can change the sensor configuration if necessary, to adjust the data capture rate for example. There is a rules management system in place, which can be used to set up how information is collated and displayed. Operators can see at a glance the times and locations of air pollution peaks, for example.

The system can be set up to warn of potential hazards; the city authorities are particularly interested in the system's potential for early warning of risks from floods, fire, landslides or reduced visibility. Alerts can be sent to relevant people and/or emergency services via different channels (including text to mobile phone and email). Critical sensors have back up communication routes and secure transmission is an important aspect of the supervisory system.

After the first year of operation, it was realised that historic as well as real time data is a valuable, even saleable, asset. Environmental information on air quality, air and sea temperature and weather is available on the city and tourist office websites. A local fish farm uses the sea water temperature data to correct the amount of food required for the growing fish. Analysis of the historical data has allowed the firm to understand better the impact of the changing water temperatures on its operation. Street noise data will be useful as the council upgrades road surfaces, enabling a 'before and after' comparison to assess the impact of new materials or techniques.

So far, the Cagne project has worked well, handling 100 or so sensors. The challenge is to support multiservices simultaneously and to scale to tens of thousands of sensors. "We need to ensure the quality of services is maintained as we add more sensors, more data and more services," Londeix explained.

The project is expanding as nearby Nice city council takes interest. New partnerships are under negotiation as new service opportunities are identified. Véolia, for example, is expanding its water metering sensor network to improve leak detection. Complex algorithms are employed to assess the difference between inflows and outflows at different meter locations in the network in order to detect and pinpoint leaks. A key technical challenge here is collecting data from underground sensors. An obvious extension is to track water quality through the network.

A new aspect, adopting technology developed and proven by Orange Labs and Véolia in Grenoble, is the remote monitoring of the content levels of rubbish and recycling bins, with the aim of improving the efficiency of waste collection.

Street lighting control is extending from 80 to more than 300 sensor networks. The number of noise level sensors deployed is being expanded, together with air quality sensors, adding new devices for ozone and NO2. This data will be combined in real time, with an automatic, remote vehicle counting operation and analysed with 3d simulation tools with a view to developing urban traffic management services, including locating parking places.

As a result of the Smart City initiative, the Cagne local authorities are expecting to see a 20 to 30% reduction in street lighting energy and maintenance costs. Given that street lighting is estimated to account for some 40% of a city's energy consumption, this represents a significant saving. Further benefits anticipated include 20 to 40% reduction in greenhouse gases and 20 to 40% energy savings on heating bills for public buildings. In addition, the council will be highlighting to the public the measures for improving the quality of life, through the real time monitoring of parameters that can impact the environment and public health, such as air pollution.

Early success at Cagne has been recognised nationally. In October 2008, the French government announced its 'EcoCité' or sustainable city initiative, with a call for district based projects (EcoQuartiers). Both Grenoble and Nice have signed up. The Nice district – on the Plaine du Var and dubbed Eco-Vallée – promises to be a large scale urban monitoring project, based on ICT based intelligent networks and services. It has already attracted public funding and commercial support from major enterprises, including France Telecom Orange. Longer term, the Intelligent Sustainable City concept will be broadened to the Nice connurbation.

In Grenoble, smart gas and water meters are being installed in an EcoQuartier, with temperature and humidity sensors being deployed to monitor environmental aspects. Targets have been set for energy saving, and a dashboard will be created to provide the citizens (and utilities) with real time visibility of energy consumption. The project combines with a societal element to encourage people to reduce their heating thermostats to 19°C, for example. Analysing the resulting data will be used to identify building inefficiencies, such as poor insulation.

"We see an expanding range of service opportunities," Londeix said. From Orange's perspective, the company does not want, nor intend to, provide all these services, but is keenly interested in deploying the communications network (both fixed and mobile) that will enable them. It could, however, become a data broker. In terms of a business model, Londeix cannot be specific. "We need to pin down the services that people will pay for. No single service will pay for the network, so the investment has to be funded across different applications." Water metering is an obvious start point, while other businesses and industries, as well as local council services, are expected to contribute.

Bottaro talked about the ability to sense the 'emotion' of the city: "Combining sensor data with information on where people are, or are not, will help with tasks such as energy peak detection and peak shaving at a city level."

Further in the future, both Londeix and Bottaro see potential for new technologies, such as near field communications, which will allow greater access to the data via the internet. "Ultimately, mobile phones will not only be the access mechanism to the data services, but also the sensor nodes contributing to the pool of data," Londeix predicted. But the most powerful driving forces, Londeix observes, will result from EU and Government legislation, and the public/private partnernships that will emerge. And so it seems, in France at least.

Londeix: "We've learnt some valuable lessons on the limitations of certain sensors, repeaters, the distances between them and their power requirements."

Louise Joselyn

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