How Sensors Promise To Change Our Lives, From Smoother Traffic To Smarter Garbage

Installing weather censors in Villeurbanne, in the suburbs of Lyon
Installing weather censors in Villeurbanne, in the suburbs of Lyon
Jacques Henno

TOULOUSE — After a year of work and five million euros in investments, Sigfox, a start-up from Labège, near Toulouse, southern France, has just finished deploying a new communications network — an Internet of Things — in 95% of the cities in France.

Sensors spread out across cities and their suburbs will be able to transmit information to a website or even receive orders. “The applications are endless,” says Sigfox CEO Ludovic Le Moan. “We will be able to monitor pollution levels, optimize traffic flows, prevent breakdowns in urban lighting…”

In Grenoble, east-central France, the company Atim Radiocommunications has already installed 4,000 humidity sensors on the urban heating network to detect leaks. “Around the world, there are 2,400 projects to turn cities into smart cities, notably thanks to sensors linked within a local network,” says IBM France Vice-President Philippe Sajhau, the man behind IBM Smarter Cities Challenge. “It’s a huge market: the population is becoming more and more urban, and cities must be careful with their spending while making life easier for its inhabitants.”

“What is important today is not the company that builds garbage bins, it’s the company that will — thanks to sensors — make the bins smart and help the city manage its garbage truck route better,” explains Christophe Féry, the organizer of the Innovative City Convention. A company named Connit, also based in Labège, is already offering a solution to monitor the rate at which the garbage trucks get filled.

A better hand on infrastructures

Sensor networks are being experimented in many places. The networks are interconnected and connected to a central computer via Wi-Fi, cell phones, power line communication (PLC) or other transmitting devices like the one Sigfox uses. The information that is collected is analyzed and compared to data from previous years, which allows cities to better manage their services and infrastructures.

In Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, the birthplace of Philips, the Intelligent Lighting Institute of the Eindhoven University of Technology LightHouse has been asked to develop a roadmap for urban lighting in 2030. “LEDs and sensors will help adapt the light according to the time of day, weather, number of people the streets, their mood or the fine particle dust in the atmosphere,” says Elke den Ouden, LightHouse founder.

Brazil, Malaysia and the Philippines are testing sensors to monitor water saturation levels in the earth beneath shantytowns so that they can prevent landslides.

The Optimod’Lyon project in Lyon, east-central France, comprises of 450 sensors spread all over the city to measure the density of traffic. The data they transmit allows the city to predict traffic for the next hour with a reliability rate of over 90%. The idea is that in the future traffic light management and information for public transport users can be adapted accordingly. Also in Lyon, HiKoB, a start-up from Villeurbanne, in the suburbs, has deployed about 60 weather sensors that are self-sufficient energy wise. The teams responsible for salting and snow removal are now able to better target their interventions. In the winter, street maintenance costs up to 400,000 euros a day.

“We are at the beginning of a revolution made possible by the low cost of sensors, their miniaturization, their greater autonomy, the drop in communication costs as well as progress in data processing and storage, including the progress made in data analysis,” says Pascal Rioual, deputy director of the French competitiveness cluster Capenergies. The last step would be finding the most profitable applications.

The promises of “hyper monitoring”

One of the most futuristic designs is “hyper monitoring,” which goes even further than just monitoring a city. “The sensors see everything, their data is brought together and visualized in a central command center and then redistributed to the services or the users who need it,” explains a tech adviser from the French S2E2 competitiveness cluster. “One day, we will even be able to send personalized text messages to warn the users that their morning bus is late and that they have five more minutes to enjoy their coffee.

But in order to achieve this, we need to develop multifunctional sensors and de-compartmentalize information. Urban lighting, for instance, is the second biggest budget for cites, after heating and infrastructure indoor lighting. Thanks to PLC, street lamps can create a communications network. They could be fitted with sensors that can send out an alert when their light bulbs start losing efficiency. The street lamps could also be used to monitor many other things: humidity (when it rains, cars consume more — users of electric cars need to be warned); heat on surrounding buildings (to alert residents in case of a fire); as well as infrared sensors to detect cars and pedestrians at night (street lamps turn on as needed); the presence of a body or an assault…

The question is: Will the services in charge of urban lighting share their sensors or data with other local and national services such as firefighters or the police, or even private operators (electric car-sharing companies)?

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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