to aid the safety and design of urban cycling routes

The Connected Bicycle Solution That’s Making our Cities Smarter

September 4, 2017

Among the more rapid developments in IoT since the 2016 Mobile World Congress has been the progress made by Ulster-based tech start-up See.Sense. Since making their first demonstrations to us at the Innovation City in Barcelona last year, See.Sense have succeeded in making a highly valuable addition to the capabilities of smart city planners: intelligent and connected bicycle lights.  Through a series of pilots across three cities in the British Isles – Dublin, Belfast and Manchester – an award-winning solution has been developed to aid the safety and design of urban cycling routes.

See.Sense CSO Irene McAleese explains that “the exposure we received and the contacts we made at Innovation City were amazing. Since then, we went on to win the BT SME Award for Connected Cities, and raised equity funding for our business. The funding is such that we can accelerate product development as well as explore the opportunity that our data presents for smart cities.”  The results of this work and investment are significant to anyone with an interest in urban planning over the next few years, forming a major further step towards smart traffic and infrastructure management.

Participating bicycles are fitted with lightweight, USB-rechargeable LED lamps containing tracking devices, known as ICONs. These are capable of collecting data on the surrounding area, such as light levels, temperature, road surface quality, routes taken, and information on accidents or near-miss events, which then anonymously transmits the data to an IoT data hub.  It can then be collated and used by city planners to monitor and innovate cycling infrastructure in far greater detail than was previously possible, and in real time.  Actionable insights include ability to identify accident hot-spots and near-miss areas, proactive road maintenance, traffic flows, and cyclist behaviours; city planners can also integrate the system with traffic lights, and will soon be able to monitor air quality in real time as well.

The ease and success with which these schemes have been undertaken are highly encouraging.  City authorities have shown considerable enthusiasm for both the opportunities afforded by adopting an IoT solution to urban cycling, and the results achieved so far. Edel Kelly, Senior Executive Planner for Dublin City Council, sees great potential in the scheme: “There are a wide range of use cases that we see possible from the real-time sensor data collected from these lights; the data collected by the trial participants will be used to help us develop a safer and better cycling experience for Dublin.” In Manchester, Professor John Davies, Chief Researcher of Future Technologies at BT, refers to “the wide range of opportunities emerging from the real-time data collected, bringing valuable insights for the city’s infrastructure and policies, and helping develop a safer and better cycling experience”.  The simple and relatively low-cost units have been able to provide these benefits by fitting into large-scale urban infrastructure in a fairly organic and unobtrusive way; there has been no need for major technological overhauls at any level, as may come to mind when smart cities are evoked. In fact, they allow planners to avoid using in-path cycle sensors, stationary devices used currently to monitor cycling activity, which are expensive to install and occasionally vandalised.

Perhaps chief among the findings has been the degree to which the business model for such deployments can be made to work for all parties concerned. ICON provides a novel source of information to municipal authorities, and thereby a valuable opportunity to improve the services they offer. As the data collection becomes more established, therefore, production could be funded by data sale; alternatively, municipal authorities may decide this makes it worthwhile simply to subsidise or even purchase the devices outright. As Ms McAleese explains, “the key to our long-term vision is data: using mobile tech will enable us to form communities with cyclists, harvesting environmental and ride data, and enabling us to map our cities like never before. Better data will help to make cycling more visible to policy makers, and allow cities to take adaptive, data-driven decisions.”

However, the devices also enhance security for both the cyclist and the bicycle itself. The lights are daylight visible, can be seen from any angle within 270 degrees of the centre, and react to their environment, flashing brighter and faster at riskier situations such as roundabouts, roadjunctions, filtering in traffic and to approaching cars providing improved visibility and safety for the cyclist. They therefore offer benefits over generic bicycle lights to the end user, who also benefits from the improved urban services that they use, providing an incentive too for private sale. “We are essentially trying to create a double-sided business model,” explained Ms McAleese; “one where we delight customers with a fantastic product and one where we can also serve cities with much-needed data for smarter and safer cities.”

In Belfast, See.Sense ‘Mapper’ devices which use similar sensor technology found in ICON, are now in deployment in Belfast’s city bike scheme, which in addition to the environmental and behavioural data collected, also allows the bike’s whereabouts to be tracked in case of theft.  Given that 40% of Belfast’s public bicycles had been found to be out of use as a result of vandalism and theft, See.Sense technology will provide an innovative way to tackle this and provide improved security.

Crucially, the developers at See.Sense have chosen to deliver MAPPER through Mobile IoT specifically, NB-IoT.  Like LTE-M, this technology utilises low power wide area networks in licensed spectrum and as such will maximise the security and reliability of the data channels involved. Ms McAleese explained, “The sensors used on the city bike are coming from phone tech – we are currently in the process of developing NB-IoT variants which we can fit to the city bikes.” By opting for licensed spectrum they have ensured not only the quality and efficiency of their own operation, but have helped ensure the safety of the data belonging to all those involved in future.  As smart cities and IoT in general continue their early development, the confidence of planners and end users alike will be vital; and, from what we can know at this time, ICON seems likely to make an excellent contribution to that public confidence.

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