Tuesday, 11th December 2018

Smart Transport Networks: The Future Is Now

With more than six billion people expected to live in urbanised areas by the year 2050, enhancing transport networks is an increasingly vital priority for city authorities across the world. By Chris Shannon, CEO, Fotech Solutions.

The significance of this predicted rise has fuelled investment in a variety of smart city infrastructure projects. One of the most important of which has been the digital augmentation of city transport systems. Of the $81 billion that the International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates will be poured into smart city initiatives this year, investment in smart transport systems are second only to security projects.

Such interest and growth in investment is entirely understandable. Transport infrastructure and traffic management systems are a critical component of any major city — impacting everything from citizens to businesses, to the environment and the economy — and improving traffic flows will become crucial in densely populated urban areas.

Today, the economic costs of traffic congestion are estimated to be $461 billion in the US, UK and Germany alone. As migration to cities and urbanised areas rises, so too will the economic impacts of congestion. Which means effective and reliable traffic flows will become essential for sustainability and future economic growth. Terms such as “Journey Reliability Time” (JRT) are already commonplace in cities like London and New York but will soon become one of the key metrics by which to judge the effectiveness of smart transport initiatives.

The challenge for governments and city authorities is delivering the intelligent traffic management they’ll require, while also ensuring the investments we are seeing are not squandered. This is not an insignificant task. But what if the future of smart transport systems was already in place? What if there were technologies available now that enabled you to limit the cost of better traffic management and even speed-up deployments without major new capital investments in digital infrastructure?

The answer lies below

Many of the challenges involved in deploying intelligent or smart digital systems stem from the limitations of current traffic management systems.

Existing transport management systems are based on a number of technologies — from cameras to over-roadway sensors and inductive loop detectors. But they are based on traditional timing and typically programmed using outdated traffic data. Which means they’re simply not able to provide dynamic responses to irregular events such as accidents, roadworks or major construction. The result of which is that when the pre-programmed flow is disrupted, there are knock-on effects,

To a large extent that failure is a function of the lack of truly ‘physical’ sensor data that can provide continuous real-time monitoring of traffic flows. At its core, this is what digitalisation of transport systems promises to solve. The issue is how to deploy the digital infrastructure required to capture that data.

Some have looked at GPS technology as a potential technology to provide live traffic location data. And although the infrastructure is already in place to capture this data, GPS does not offer high enough accuracy or reliability. According to recent government research in the US, GPS-enabled smartphones only have an accuracy of five meters under an open sky in dense urban environments. Then there is cloud cover and tall buildings to consider, both of which can also interfere with, and affect the clarity of, the signal. For many, the limitations of GPS expose management systems to too great a margin for error.

Other wireless or telecommunications technologies that have been mooted as a potential solution would require huge capital expenditure to build the necessary sensor networks and backhaul.

Rather than looking above ground, the answer may already lie beneath our feet —namely fibre optic cable networks.

These fibre networks provide far greater coverage of transport networks than any other technology, being nearly ubiquitous in large cities already. Making use of existing fibre networks means there is no need to dig up the streets, install new cameras or fit point sensors. This also takes away the need for vast spending programmes to deploy new technology.

The obvious question though is, how can fibre optic cables be used to track traffic flows?

Harnessing acoustic signatures

The key to harnessing the potential of fibre optic cables for smart transport systems is distributed acoustic sensing (DAS) technology.

DAS essentially ‘plugs in’ to existing fibre optic cable networks, transforming them into sophisticated ‘acoustic’ sensors. All traffic generates acoustic or seismic data as it passes over roads. Crucially, certain activities and incidents produce specific acoustic signatures. DAS is able to recognise and detect these signatures through the fibre.

This gives city authorities a real-time view of their entire road network and enables them to track road traffic and public transport infrastructure — determining the speed and density of traffic, locating congestion, and detecting traffic disruption events such as broken-down vehicles.

Having access to such intelligent insights, in real-time, and in combination with smart city infrastructure and other data sources, will allow city departments to optimise the efficiency of their entire transportation networks - from directing mass transit systems more efficiently to raising accident alerts and detecting pedestrian or collision signals.

This technology is poised to deliver a level of automation that has not been seen before in smart traffic systems — the potential to dynamically adapt traffic controls and redirect traffic to balance overall flows and avoid crippling congestion on major arteries will be invaluable to traffic authorities.

Furthermore, as we look ahead to the implementation of autonomous vehicles — which are likely to be the future of public transport — DAS can play another important role. Accurate tracking of autonomous vehicles is crucial to ensuring their safe operation and to reduce the risk to passengers and pedestrians alike.

As DAS relies on ground-based fibre optic cables it can provide far greater certainty of the exact location of autonomous buses, and even trams, and place that in the context of traffic flows around the city. Delivering this more accurate tracking data will be crucial to overcoming lingering concerns over the roll out of public autonomous vehicle infrastructure.

The future is now

The real-time insights that can DAS provide are what cities need to optimise their transport networks.

As such, it is worth reiterating that there are already thousands of miles of suitable fibre already in place under our streets. Deploying DAS will not only realise new value in our fibre assets, it will also deliver the smart systems we need quicker, cheaper and, most importantly, with less disruption. Not digging up roads to make them smarter makes sense.

Trials are underway to demonstrate just how powerful the combination of DAS and our existing fibre networks will be. However, there is no doubt that it holds huge potential to help city authorities tackle the challenges they face to keep their populations flowing, happy and prosperous.

If we are serious about improving traffic flows, gaining new insights to manage road and transport networks better, improving road safety and reducing emissions then DAS really could be the key technology for the future of the smart city.

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