Real-Time Sensor Networks Give a Voice to the Planet

Real-Time Sensor Networks Give a Voice to the Planet

Embedded sensors give once-silent systems a voice, and it turns out they have plenty to say. 

You don’t need a therapist to tell you communication is the key to a healthy relationship. When all parties involved are expressing their needs effectively, only then will an exchange be mutually beneficial. But what if you don’t speak the same language? Or what if one party can’t communicate at all?

The relationship that we have with our immediate surroundings, and with the environment at large, has always been fairly one-sided. On the planetary scale, it often takes decades of gathering quantitative data before confident assertions can be made about natural systems. And then there’s the time it takes to change established social behaviors in response to those findings. But now, thanks to the proliferation of powerful, low-cost sensors, our natural and artificial worlds are being given their own voice. These environmental whispers are providing dynamic illustrations of the planet’s condition and performance in real-time, and allowing us to understand and address issues more rapidly.

As Padmasree Warrior, chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco, in an interviewwith the American Civil Liberties Union explains:

“We estimate that only one percent of things that could have an IP address do have an IP address today, so we like to say that ninety-nine percent of the world is still asleep. It’s up to our imaginations to figure out what will happen when the ninety-nine percent wakes up.”

If these walls could talk, right? But why stop with the walls? It turns out that if dumpsters could talk, cities could cut waste management costs by 40%. That means less noisy trucks to wake you up in the morning, less fuel burning up into the atmosphere and all around less garbage sitting around your city for less time. All this from a clever little system from a company called Enevo. By placing wireless sensors in waste containers, Enevo is able to create optimized pick-up routes based on the amount of garbage in each bin. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The comprehensive system takes account of truck availability, traffic information, road closures and a lot more. But if a little data can make that big of a change, imagine what we could do with big data.

In the Spanish city of Santander, a network of 12,000 sensors communicates what’s happening in town. Integrating these devices into new and existing city infrastructure — such as street lights, public signage and roads — has added an incredible new depth to the way that people are able to engage with their environment. Authorities now have access to real-time data on things like utilities, traffic, energy consumption and pollution. Residents get updates on available parking spaces and public transit, and they can use an app to notify the city of public annoyances like potholes (or too-noisy neighbors). The project, SmartSantander, was launched in 2010, with an initial budget of €6 million (roughly US$8 million) from the European Commission. That may seem like a large investment, but having access to real-time data has already cut the city’s electrical bill by 25%. Those walls aren’t so special now, are they?


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