Written by IEEE | October 16, 2018

Smart city technologies have been getting a lot of attention in recent months. After all, they stand to make cities better places to live, and may make them more sustainable.

Adding wireless sensors to everything from roads to pipes relies on what have become simple, low-cost technologies. But don’t be deceived by the simplicity of the sensors – this new wireless network will drastically shift the workflow of city management.

According to research published in IEEE Electrification Magazine, “Historically, urban infrastructures have been planned independently and operated individually, leading to domain-specific silos that lack flexibility and interoperability in providing services to citizens.” Now, this wireless data can help city authorities make decisions quickly, proactively and with unified information.

Central to the overall function of these low-cost sensors is the use of the cloud. To the researchers from the Illinois Institute of Technology, “Cloud computing allows data to be retrieved and processed in real time, which offers a convenient way to perform big data analytics.” And best of all for municipalities, it’s cost-effective. But these upsides are dependent on the data being structured and timed in ways that are consistent.

One big challenge in this endeavor is that because utilities are fundamentally different and their control systems private and domain-specific, the data generated by sensors can be structured quite differently. This creates a roadblock for cloud computing.

The researchers see the answer to this problem in edge computing.

So, what exactly is edge computing? In short, rather than taking place in a centralized cloud, computing is first conducted locally on a network of distributed devices. Once the heaviest computing is done, processed data can then be sent to the cloud, improving responsiveness and reducing lag. Hence, these devices live at the “edge” of the cloud.

This setup also helps avert issues with data structure.

The researchers still propose that the cloud play a big role here, however. By using a hierarchy that employs sensors and actuators at the field level, local controllers for data capture and edge processing at the area level and full use of the cloud and predictive analytics at the control center level, they believe city authorities can collect and analyze data across disparate infrastructures in real-time.

This availability of data will facilitate planning and decision making, “which can improve city operations, ensure the well-being of citizens and meet the expectations for urban sustainability,” they say.

Shawn Chandler, IEEE Senior Member and Chair of the IEEE Internet of Things Smart Cities Working Group, puts the data transmission challenge more bluntly: “Tackling the communications services and data integration necessary to connect the many infrastructure-related elements of smart cities is a foundational requirement – without it, there is no smart city.”

Free access to this research from IEEE Electrification Magazine (IEEE Power & Energy Society) is provided by IEEE Technical Community Spotlight, a newsletter that shares the latest breaking news from IEEE societies and communities. You can find the latest issue here. Read the full paper before free access ends on December 10th.