Why sensors make sense, and how they make our life better

How sensors and networks can make life better in our poorly designed urban areas, and our crowded nation

Prasanto K Roy | September 8, 2014


The huge task of cleaning the holy but filthy Ganga will start with sensors to raise red flags when industries pollute it.
The huge task of cleaning the holy but filthy Ganga will start with sensors to raise red flags when industries pollute it.

“Daddy, what’s a smart city?” my seven-year-old asked.

I’d just got off the phone discussing a talk I was to give on it, and she’d also heard that ‘Modi uncle’ wanted to build smart cities.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it, Einstein had said quite crisply. Okay, I confess: I don’t understand the ‘smart city’. Even Wikipedia, that fount of knowledge, gives up on smart cities, calling them—after a rambling explanation—‘quite a fuzzy concept’.
“It’s a city that’s really well planned and uses a lot of tech stuff to make life easier,” I said. “Is Gurgaon a smart city?” she asked. “No, it’s a totally dumb city,” I said.

They say that when a child asks difficult questions, invention is the necessity of mother. And father. Just as I thought of a nice way to wriggle out of this one, she got distracted by a moth, and moved on.

How often have terms like ‘smart cities’ been misused?

Every now and then you hear of some city that is going to become smart because it’s putting in a bit of wi-fi or even some cameras.
There were the media stories about Patna becoming a smart city with the ‘a 20 km wi-fi zone’, the world’s longest. Its chief minister ‘unveiled’ this at the e-Bihar summit in Patna in February. Misplaced enthusiasm: there is no smart city. Oh, there’s no wi-fi zone either.
And now there’s this 100-smart-cities plan announced on the Independence Day, that’s thrown everyone into a tizzy.

Smarter sensors

Here are five ways cheaper, connected sensors can make it easier to run the world’s largest democracy:

Better weather prediction—especially for the monsoons—with cheap, ubiquitous sensors that report local weather parameters in real time, along with GPS data

Asset tracking—for the government and military: all aircraft, trains, land vehicles, ships

Tracking people: Attendance, productivity, occupancy sensors

Easing traffic: Localising the bottlenecks, and adapting lights and routes in real time

Air and water quality sensors in our cities and towns—and of course, in our rivers


There was already the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor plan, with smart townships beginning with Greater Noida and Vikram Udyogpuri in Madhya Pradesh in March next year. Japan is lending $4.5 billion for the first phase of these projects.

These are big plans, but there’s a lot of ‘smart’ that can be brought into the big problems that face our existing cities and our country.

Cleaning the Ganga
The mammoth project of cleaning the 2,500-km river Ganga, for instance, is starting with a practical, smart solution: sensors.
The government plans to install sensors at key points along the river to monitor industrial pollutants from about 700 industrial units, as the first step towards this huge task.

By early 2015, the sensors will monitor pollutant type and levels, and real-time data on discharges from factories to a central server, with red flags raised when preset levels are exceeded. Violator industries will ‘face action’.

This is a plan on paper, but there’s no reason why it can’t be implemented quickly, and practically, and there’s a clear benefit: accountability. It’s also a nice example of how sensors, and connected systems, can help break down a big problem into manageable chunks with technology.

Sensors, and early forms of the ‘internet of things’, are all around us. They’re in vending machines and ATMs, so that the companies running them know when they’re running out of soda, or cash. They’re in elevators and escalators, so that the people maintaining them know when there’s trouble brewing with them, or when they’ve stopped working. They are, of course, in motion-sensors to save power, switching on lights only when a room or staircase is being used.

Fixing a dumb city
Sensors, networks and connected systems can also help smarten a dumb city a bit, though it’s always a challenge to compensate for lack of initial planning.

Consider the overwhelming traffic in a city like Delhi. Sensors could use real-time traffic data—such as the buildup of cars before a traffic light—to adapt traffic light cycles continuously and in real time. They could record traffic data for months before and after a big project like the much-maligned BRT (bus rapid transit) corridor, to demonstrate whether it was a success—or the disaster that the public and media said it was.

Sensors in cars can report an accident when an airbag has deployed. Sensors and connected systems can track vehicles, trains, aircraft, so they don’t get lost. Systems in the engines of the missing Malaysian flight MH-370 ‘pinged’ back to the engine manufacturers Rolls Royce a health report every half hour, for five hours.

And high-density mass transit is completely dependent on connected systems and sensors. The Delhi Metro’s high frequency—a train every two minutes and peak time—is dependent on an expensive collision avoidance system.

Try depending on manual signaling for running a train system, and you’ll have accidents, of the sort that happen on Indian Railways, with its massive, hybrid, piecemeal signaling system. On the other hand, using a consistent, automated, sensor-based system, Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen ‘bullet train’ system, which touches 300 kph, has had no collisions and no fatalities in its half-century history.
So what do all these connected sensors have to do with making cities smarter?

A lot, actually. That smart city isn’t as much about the digital tech thrown at it later, as it is about the planning. Planning to minimise travel, energy use, carbon footprint, to plan for high-quality, reliable public transport, centered on mass transit. And even when our cities have developed over centuries into crowd and chaos, planning and technology can make a huge difference to quality of life.

Take the simple problem that many of our cities can take no more cars. Yet more are being thrown into them.

A simple answer came from the mayor of Bogoto, Columbia: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

Unfortunately, today’s smartness and advancement in our nation is in tiny islands: a few green buildings, a pilot project, a wi-fi zone.
What India needs to do is to spread this smartness wider. Planning, and technology—especially connected networks—can make that happen.

Roy (@prasanto) is a senior journalist who writes on technology and environment issues.  

This story first appeared in Magazine Vol 05 Issue 15(01-15 Sept 2014)

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