A US firm has plans to turn municipal street lighting into a shared ‘smart’ resource, using the infrastructure as a network for high-quality sensor-based connectivity.

Turning street lighting into a system for gathering Big Data

Worldwide there are over four billion installed local authority streetlights which, for the most part, use high-intensity discharge bulbs that emit mercury and other toxic substances in the process of generating light. All of them require power, and most burn out every two years. Now Sensity Systems is on a mission to progressively replace this outdated infrastructure with energy-efficient LED luminaires which are packed with data-gathering sensors that feed back a constant flow of meteorological data and other kinds of measurements. As each streetlight is replaced, it will be configured as a node in a vast global network, continually capturing and sharing data with other networks. And Sensity is planning to go way beyond mere collection of data to develop a sizeable market for applications using the data.

Sensor-packed lighting networks

There are already a number of startup companies with plans to link up public lighting networks to the Internet of Things. San José, California-based Echelon for example has already made installations in over 500 towns and cities. However, Sensity has come up with novel data-collecting and revenue models – renting the data from the owners of the physical infrastructure and then finding ways to make it profitable. The firm is in fact planning to engender a multi-level applications ecosystem. Explains Sensity Systems CEO Hugh Martin: “There are three levels of applications you can build on that kind of data: apps to control your lights, apps that deliver value back to the guy who owns the lights, and apps that have nothing to do with the guy who owns the lights.” Sensity is building the data collection, APIs, and software development kit, and will invite third-party developers to create apps based on the data.Martin LaMonica, a contributing editor at the MIT Technology Review who follows the green energy sector points out: “It does make sense to use the lighting infrastructure to collect other sensor data (…) mostly because it’s there. What remains to be seen is whether it’s going be cost-effective.”

Large potential savings for city authorities

The use of low-energy LED lighting is becoming more widespread, in spite of the substantial upfront investment required. For example the city of New York has recently announced that it intends to switch over to a fully LED public street-lighting system by 2017, with the prospect of over €14 million in savings per year. Sensity Systems is selling its LED-plus-sensors package at €150 a unit, a sum which is less than the cost of regularly replacing traditional incandescent lights. In addition, the Light Sensory Network (LSN) will provide a regular income from the use of the data gathered. By encouraging the emergence of a new ‘smart’ ecosystem replacing what has hitherto been ‘dumb’ infrastructure, Sensity is offering city authorities a way of turning this costly public service into a revenue-generator. However, the major remaining issue appears to be the question of data confidentiality. As the LSN is likely to become one of the largest sensor systems ever put together, its potential as a security and surveillance network is obvious. Sensity intends to attack the privacy issue head-on by working in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and is preparing to hire a chief privacy officer. Moreover, the company says that, in line with Apple’s policy for its App Store, all apps developed in connection with the LSN data will have to be specifically approved.



By Thomas Meyer
Journalist, Business Analyst