Philip Mason explores some of the latest advances being made – both in devices and infrastructure – in the realm of IoT for public safety
One of the key buzz phrases in wireless communications at the moment is ‘smart cities’, a concept which – should the technology achieve its anticipated large-scale roll-out – has the capacity to transform almost every aspect of our lives.
There are numerous use-cases being explored around IoT-enabled smart cities, from the deployment of sensors to collect and interrogate city-centre parking metrics, to the use of so-called ‘smart’ street lighting to generate efficiencies. One of the most compelling, however, is the technology’s use in a public safety context, aka ‘safe cities’.
As might be imagined, the deployment of safe city technology is by no means straightforward, dependent as it is on buy-in from emergency services and civic authorities alike, as well as from a public who may well object to being perpetually monitored in the service of ‘predictive policing’. There are also numerous issues around data protection to consider, something which is only going to become more complex as the opportunities to collect and cross-reference information increase with each passing year.
Naturally the technology also needs to be there in the first place, in the form of devices, as well as the infrastructure itself. This is something being attended to at a rapid rate, both by companies that are already in the public safety space and those that are relatively new to the game.
Prevention and response
There are, broadly speaking, two core areas when it comes to public safety operations. The first of these (in terms of visibility, if not chronology) is ‘response’, the most intuitive example of which would probably be firefighters being called out.
At the same time, ‘prevention’ is also becoming increasingly important, particularly at a time of shrinking emergency services budgets across the world. This could involve a range of activities, from home fire safety checks to the establishment of partnerships with those involved in the night-time economy to curb alcohol-related crime.
With that in mind, both of these strands are being brought together by major players, including Motorola Solutions and Nokia. A recent example of this comes from the latter company in the shape of its Advanced Command Centre, a control room solution designed, among other things, to aggregate disparate IoT information sources, thereby engendering a more proactive emergency response.
Describing the product at the time of its launch at Critical Communications World 2018 in Berlin, Nokia promised “360-degree situational awareness through video and IoT”, as well as “enhanced multi-agency co-operation through virtual (ie, as a service) emergency response centres”.
This is elaborated further by Alexander van Overveld, head of public safety practice at the company’s Global Service Business Group: “There are two core components to the Advanced Command Centre, integrated with each other within the solution. These are the incident resource management system (IRMS), coupled with the PSIM (physical security information management).
“Regarding the PSIM in particular, we’ve incorporated Nokia’s Integrated Operations Centre, which can take video analytics, sensor databases and so on and make that information actionable. The aim ultimately is to enable public safety organisations to become smarter when it comes to the deployment of resources, something which, going forward, will increasingly take place prior to the 911 call even being made.”
He expands on this by describing the variety of different data sources that are likely to become available when smart city technology becomes the rule rather than the exception. These include the expected video analytics and information sensors, but also metadata harvested from telcos, which the system can subsequently analyse in order to detect ‘anomalies’.
“If we take the example of the non-personalised data provided by the telecommunications companies, that’s to do with understanding what’s happening in a particular location in terms of crowd density, movement and so on,” he says. “It’s essentially a very common-sense way of getting the inside track on changes of behaviour in a particular location, which may indicate an incident, or even anticipate it in advance.”
Describing the use of more traditional smart city data sources, he says: “Something like real-time video feeds can – clearly – be used to identify visual anomalies, for instance if a road is congested at a time when it’s usually clear. From there we can check what’s happening, again cross-referencing with other sources of information, and possibly raise an alert.”
He continues: “In terms of sensors, they could be used to detect changes in environmental conditions, such as the release of smoke or a chemical substance into the air. This could in turn indicate a fire, or another type of incident, which again would enable first-responder organisations to be more proactive when it comes to the mobilisation of resources.
“Something is defined as an ‘event’ according to specific values or thresholds monitored within the system. Going back to the example of a potentially serious fire, you define the threshold according to the number of ‘particles per million’ in the air. If the smoke exceeds a particular PPM, you launch a higher-level emergency alert.”
According to van Overveld, the data provided by sensors or video analytics can also be used to feed back into other aspects of the pre-existing smart city ecosystem. A particularly elegant example of this is the brightening of street lights in response to what’s happening on the ground, such as a road traffic collision taking place on a minor road in the middle of the night.
Pre-eminent test bed
As indicated above, the use of digital comms to gather and cross-reference mission-critical information has the potential to revolutionise emergency services’ incident response. The safe city concept extends further than simply pre-empting frontline incidents, however, with IoT technology also having the potential to add a predictive element to the broader public wellbeing piece.
This is something which is already being widely discussed across the public health and social care sector, with wireless solutions now appearing for the monitoring of everything from sleep apnoea to the location of people with dementia. There is also movement at the level of local government, as in Bristol in the UK, a city that also just happens to be the site of a pre-eminent British smart city test bed in the form of Bristol is Open.
Bristol is Open has been made possible due to the city being in the highly unusual position of owning its own ducting, purchased when TV company Rediffusion stopped trading at the end of the 1980s. This ducting has subsequently been flooded with fibre ring – following a £5.3m grant from the UK government – enabling the current simultaneous provision of Wi-Fi, massive MIMO, LTE 2, 3 and 4, as well as a street lamp mesh network.
According to Bristol is Open MD Julie Snell, so far this infrastructure has been used primarily for examination of the technology itself, as with the recent 5G tests carried out by University of Bristol engineers at the beginning of 2017. The ambition now, however, is to look very practically at how it can be used to improve people’s lives, particularly in relation to the prevention of serious public health and safety issues.
“We’ve got to a three-year point where essentially we’re now testing according to a variety of end-to-end use-cases, taking the R&D platform and using it for social good,” Snell says. “We start with a clear intention, looking at quality of someone’s life in a particular area and how it can be improved through the use of the data.”
An example of this given by Snell is work currently being carried out in the realm of health and wellbeing, looking specifically at how the social care system can be more proactive when it comes to looking after vulnerable people. This concept can also be extended to monitoring by the emergency services in relation to fire safety, home security and so on.
Speaking of this in relation to the elderly population in particular, she says: “There’s been a massive increase in people over 85, most of whom live on their own in isolation. One of the exercises we’re looking at is to monitor the health of those people, deploying unobtrusive sensors around where they live to build up a sense of their normal routine.
“The objective fundamentally is to spot anomalies in their behaviour, after which their neighbour could potentially get a text message or a phone call asking them to drop by and say hello. These homes often have no broadband access, so the questions we’re asking now are whether we can use low-powered, Sigfox-type networks to get the data into the community nursing system.”
She continues: “If we can make this work, it could also potentially keep people away from an ICU bed before they become poorly, saving something like £10,000 a day. The funding model will be obviously different according to the area of work – for instance, the highways department monitoring the condition of the roads – but the principle is the same.”
A complex process
Bristol is in a privileged – and somewhat unique – position when it comes to deploying wireless communication solutions as it possesses its own infrastructure. At the same time, it also benefits from a “forward-looking” mayor who involves Snell across numerous aspects of the city council’s strategy and business plan.
This clearly puts it at an advantage as a location, not only in terms of how quickly new technology can be deployed, but also in how eager the municipal authority might be to incorporate it into its own business practices. Bristol is Open may ostensibly be only a test bed, but there is a sense from talking to Snell that the learning derived from it could be carried far into the future.
Given the apparent benefits of smart and safe city IoT then, you have to wonder why these solutions are still only being adopted on such a tentative scale in other locations. According to network specialist Ruckus’s Spencer Hinzen, this can be explained simply by how complicated it is to roll out, not just from the point of view of the cost and complexity of the technology itself, but also the legislative and inter-organisational understanding needed.
“Many people in municipal environments still live in what I call the old world – in other words, they can only think about delivering their services in a certain way,” he says. “At the same time, they’re being confronted with new technology on an almost daily basis, which means they have to start being open to suggestions on how this can be used to make things better. This is very cool, but it requires a realistic vision.
“The complexity of all these technologies tend to confuse the hell out of the end-user, particularly when you factor in a certain level of insecurity around potential return on investment.”
According to Hinzen, who is the company’s regional sales director for Southern Europe, this vision has to begin with the setting out of priorities in terms of what organisations want to accomplish, rather than taking their cue purely from the technology itself. At the same time, he says, it is also necessary to put a long-term plan in place, thereby future-proofing any system in relation to what the organisation and its partners may want to do. Needless to say – regarding the deployment of safe city solutions in particular – this is a conversation which needs to involve not just the local authority but also representatives from the emergency services, health and social care agencies and so on.
Ruckus’s solution from the technological perspective is to enable organisations to roll out a core infrastructure themselves, on top of which services can be added as and when required. This is symbolised by its IoT suite launched earlier this year, a solution which, to quote the press release: “Consolidates multiple physical-layer IoT into a single [system]... allowing for the use of common infrastructure between the WLAN (wireless local area network) and the IoT access network.”
Speaking of the benefits of this kind of approach, Hinzen says: “The IoT space has essentially opened up a goldmine and a Pandora’s box simultaneously, again because of the sheer level of complexity in relation to different systems and levels of standardisation. Our solution essentially creates a management environment, with one common backhaul infrastructure. In phase one we’ll support ZigBee and BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy), and in phase two we’ll add LoRa. The aim essentially is to become RF-agnostic, where they just plug in and go.”
Moving back to the subject of safe cities in particular, a further complication comes from issues around how to legally store and use the data in question once it has been collected, whether that is from CCTV or police body-worn cameras, or harvested straight from devices belonging to members of the public. There are also the residual questions about how willing individual public safety and social care agencies are to share what they have with each other in terms of this kind of intelligence.
Speaking on the first topic, Hinzen says: “Once you’ve decided on the network, other questions naturally spring up around security infrastructure, and how you’re going to use the data itself. Who owns it? How do I protect personal information? Again, these are not easy things to answer, and need to be addressed as early as possible in the planning stage with the different agencies talking to each other.”
Snell elaborates on this, talking in particular about Bristol is Open’s intention to make the project completely open-source. “Our aspiration is that everything we do is available, which puts us in an interesting position when it comes to something like GDPR. Just like everyone else, we need people’s permission to [put the data out there] for use, but how do you do that when you’re talking about IoT sensors operating on every vehicle, or visual material being harvested from CCTV cameras?”
She continues: “Again, that’s a matter of reconciling the technology piece with the real world. We try and make sure all departments are involved, joining up business cases at the very beginning. Once we’ve done that, it’ll be available to every other city as a way to understand what the implications of this are. Local governments are becoming very reluctant to become data-holders, something which in the current climate is completely understandable.”
It’s clear that there are a variety of issues which need to be addressed when it comes to the roll-out of safe city solutions, from the disparate nature of the technology itself to more ‘peripheral’ concerns around the business case, legislation and so on. It’s also clear that, with the appropriate level of planning, the IoT could add a whole new dimension in the ongoing struggle to keep the public safe.
Author: Philip Mason