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Thousands of sensors will make Cambridge the world's smartest city

From left Dan Clarke, Smart Cambridge Programme Manager and Dr Ian Lewis, Director of Infrastructure Investment (leading the Smart Cambridge research team) at Roger Needham Building, University of Cambridge West site. Picture: Keith Heppell
From left Dan Clarke, Smart Cambridge Programme Manager and Dr Ian Lewis, Director of Infrastructure Investment (leading the Smart Cambridge research team) at Roger Needham Building, University of Cambridge West site. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cambridge is set to become one of the world's smartest cities, with thousands of data-collecting sensors to be set up on buildings, lampposts, traffic lights and numerous other sources throughout the city over the next couple of years.

Many are already in place and are informing an app launching this summer. Right now, real-time data is being collected to monitor buses, air quality and car parks. Train and highways information will follow, along with the contextual data around them such as traffic flows from around the city.

It’s all part of the Smart Cambridge programme, which the City Deal pumped £1.6million into this month to ensure the foundations can be laid over the next three years to push Cambridge to the forefront of the smart city revolution.

The focus now is traffic management. In years to come these sensors will be part of a system informing a city that will be navigated by driverless vehicles and drones. But the potential of the system means even more ambitious initiatives could be on the way.

Heading the project for the past two years are Dan Clarke, future digital programme manager at Cambridge County Council, and Dr Ian Lewis, director of infrastructure investment at the University of Cambridge, although Smart Cambridge is an ‘ecosystem’ of collaborators that also includes Redgate, Microsoft, ARM and many others.

Mr Clarke said: “The smart city concept is that you have a data-driven city. If you have an understanding of what’s going on around the city you have the ability to adapt, analyse and drive city management, addressing traffic issues and air quality. Then you can move into health and social care, and many other areas you can apply this thinking to.”

“We’re aiming to be the smartest, and have every expectation that we will be the smartest,” said Dr Lewis.

What’s collected by city-wide sensors is all open data, and one of the most exciting things about the project is that it puts a sea of information at the fingertips of entrepreneurs who can use it to create new ‘things’ that will improve the day-to-day lives of Cambridge residents.

A search for the best 10 innovators is happening right now, and what they create will be pioneered in Cambridge, and sold to the rest of the world.

“The sensors can do anything,” said Dr Lewis, “from tell whether a car parking space is full, or build an air quality sensor that you can mount on a lamppost, or how many cars are queueing at a traffic light.”

More than two billion points of data have been collected so far, and more than 200 people have worked with them, mostly students. A Cambridge University undergraduate, for example, has already built a system that can predict cross-city transit to the nearest minute.

“We can give people information that they can rely on,” said Mr Clarke, “so when they’re planning their journeys they know exactly how long it’s going to take, exactly when the bus is going to come, and it gives a level of certainty which means people are more likely to use public transport.”

Dr Lewis said: “We’ve got a vision of the adaptive city. If there’s congestion the traffic signs will alter, and messages distributed. We work backwards from there.

“What is unusual in this regard is that the university and the region are doing the same things, so it’s win-win.

“The region is getting a world class digital platform, infinitely more capable than it would have been without our support, and the university gets a laboratory on an urban scale.

Mr Clarke said: “Although this is very experimental and cutting-edge we’ve been sure to implement it in a way which is practical. This is just the first iteration of the platform that is being released. It will be growing and there will be more and more data going into it.”

Dr Lewis added: “This thing is designed to operate at scale. It’s normal for a city to have air quality sensors in the tens. We’re discussing whether we can deploy 5,000 air quality sensors.”

The sensors have a 10km range, a 10-year battery life, and cost about £10. They, along with traffic lights, bus movements, car park barriers, ticketing machines, smart bins and numerous other sensors make the Intelligent City Platform (iCP) which will feed information into a data hub over a Low Power Long Range Network (LoRaWan). This network went live on January 30.

Dr Lewis said “The network is positioning ourselves at the start of the growth curve and we can see the opportunity ahead of us. We haven’t deployed thousands of these sensors yet, this is the plan over the next couple of years.

“Assuming this goes ahead, this then kicks in with a vengeance. If we are trialling autonomous pods, they will be instrumented like crazy.

“We will know every second of every day, exactly what those vehicles are doing, how many people are around them.

“We’ll have a more diverse range of information coming over our sensor network than anybody else.

“It’ll be operating at a scale that will take other cities a while to catch up.”

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