Smart lighting: dim views?

Modernising the humble lamppost has long been seen as an ‘easy win’ for councils wanting to save cash and make their cities smarter. So why aren’t companies snowed under with demand?
Published —
27.07.17
Writer —

IT’S four years since Bristol enabled its citizens to “talk” to lampposts.

An interactive art project – called Hello Lamp Post – also allowed people to communicate via text message with post boxes, bollards and even bins, and receive something like intelligent responses.

It was a playful twist on the smart city concept, rather than a serious step into the future.

But streetlights have long been seen as the easy win for councils looking to drag their cities into the smart age. Across the UK, millions of decades-old sodium lamps need upgrading and the savings promised by low-energy LEDs mean they should pay for themselves within a few years.

Adding sensors can turn them into noise, traffic or air quality monitors, flood-warning indicators or weather stations. Go one step further by monetising the data, and it becomes clear why the ground under a lamp post has been dubbed “the most valuable square foot of real estate in a city”.

So, why aren’t intelligent streetlights commonplace?

At a Smart to Future Cities conference in London in May, at least five companies were peddling their variation of the intelligent lamppost. Each had developed ingenious uses for them in a bid to convince the largely public-sector audience to take the bait.

Gary Atkinson, chief executive of Norfolk-based enLight, described how streetlights could even play a role in elderly home care.

A £30 Bluetooth-enabled rubber wristband could trigger an alert – via the nearest smart streetlight – if someone with early-stage dementia strayed too far from their usual neighbourhood, he explained.

“Put a low-cost temperature sensor in the home of Mrs Smith and maybe we could prevent her dying from hypothermia if she’s afraid to put her heating on because of the cost,” he added.

Graphic showing the number of lampposts in Europe and their capabilities [Image:UrbanDNA]

Atkinson said social services departments had been impressed by the capabilities of enLight’s radio mesh network but added: “We are having a challenge to be deployed in pilot form because different departments don’t talk to each other. Somebody in adult care in one council asked us ‘how do I give some of my budget to the lighting guys’?”

And that’s the difficulty

Scotland has made impressive progress in upgrading its sodium lamps, with almost 30% of the country’s 900,000 fixtures now upgraded to LED, according to the Scottish Futures Trust.

The trust created a Street Lighting Toolkit for local authorities to input the number, type and position of their lights, before generating a report about suitable replacement bulbs, and potential energy and cost savings.

“It’s a no-brainer,” says spokesman Jonathan Murray. “Some local authorities haven’t even completed all their streetlamps but are saving £250,000 a year which can be spent on frontline services.”

But for the most part, the “smart” bit is missing.

Spurred on by the £24m it won by beating 29 rivals to a single pot of UK government smart city funding, Glasgow introduced a centralised data hub and is piloting intelligent street lights. Sensors monitor vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian numbers, with the lamps programmed to automatically brighten and dim depending on traffic and ambient light levels.

Aberdeen, Perth and Sterling are following suit, with the help of European funding, but not all authorities are so forward-looking.

“Some still employ people to go out in a van at 3am and check whether lights are on,” says Murray. The trust, an arms-length company set up by the Scottish government, provides expert consultants to councils free of charge.

However, Murray says: “You can lead a horse to water… but it’s up to the councils to fund [the upgrades].”

So, what needs to change?

It’s been almost three years since Graham Colclough, of advisory company UrbanDNA, set up the EU-backed Humble Lamppost initiative with a target to upgrade 10 million of the continent’s estimated 60-90 million streetlights with LED bulbs and smart characteristics.

He’s likened the process to wading through treacle.

“There needs to be a fundamental change in the market,” he says. “We need to view it in a holistic sense.

“We need action within cities to get the conversation with the right people – policy tsars worrying about the environment and air quality, transport officers who can use lampposts to mount electric vehicle charging equipment, cities or private firms that can use the array of poles for connectivity (IoT and WiFi), as well as the lighting engineers.”

More than that, he believes, it requires partnerships on all fronts. Colclough says cities, which “don’t normally collaborate”, need to be incentivised with government or European funds to pool together to create a demand strong enough convince investors.

Graphic showing smart lighting capabilities [Image: UrbanDNA]

The EU Sharing Cities Lighthouse programme – led by London and involving Lisbon, Bordeaux, Milan, Warsaw and Burgas, in Bulgaria – aims to do just that. It sees Greenwich acting as a testbed not just for smart lighting but other tech initiatives such as electric bikes, driverless cars, renewable energy schemes and data sharing.

But do businesses need to do more?

Colclough urges suppliers to open up to collaboration too, particularly in terms of standards.

“There are multiple lamppost manufacturers in Europe and the profitability of all of them is pants. They are too small, too fragmented,” he says. “It’s better to give up a little to gain lots. Everyone worries about IP – which is hard enough to protect anyway – so they are too guarded. I’m not suggesting the solution is one-size-fits-all but it would be better for companies to come together to agree some common frameworks, open standards, and interoperability.”

This, Colclough says, is an area where the UK could benefit. “Britain in particular is very well respected internationally for well-managed design and most importantly for standards. There’s an opportunity to use that – particularly in a post-Brexit world.”

By sharing information, he believes, companies can work out a stronger business case when trying to sell the virtues of using sensors to turn lampposts into charging points for electric cars or flood warning indicators.
Potential revenue stream comes from a variety of sources, he says, from IT connectivity to selling data about footfall. “It’s a resource, like energy, and we are working to understand what are the business cases for each of these use cases,” he adds.

Things are changing

Lighting industry consortium Zhaga has recognised the situation, and is introducing standardised connector interfaces.

Its secretary-general Dee Denteneer wrote in LED Professional last year: “A standardised connector interface enables interchangeablility. This means that the luminaire maker is able to fit different sensor modules from different suppliers, according to the needs of the customer.

“And, perhaps most significantly, the standardised interface will allow the module to be easily upgraded in the field, adding new intelligence and extending the useful life of the luminaire.”

John Fox, MD of West Yorkshire-based Lucy Zodion, agrees that the interface will provide a “new ecosystem” of suppliers, adding: “A consortium has to be making these things more open and interoperable.”

He acknowledges that the industry needs to help councils by developing standards if the potential of lampposts to act as electric car charging points, noise monitors or parking aids is to be realised.

“Social good counts for something but not when the cost of deployment is huge and data is regarded to be free. You can monetise these things… but this is where the issue of non-vendor lock-in becomes crucial,” he said.

However, as Colclough points out, time is of the essence if councils and businesses are to make the most of the opportunity presented LED upgrades.

“Heck, if we can’t get things right for a simple lamppost, what befalls us when we want to tackle more complex smart city solutions?”

Lamppost images: UrbanDNA

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