Take me down to the smart city

– Jonathan Wilkins

In 2015, market research firm Juniper Research declared Barcelona the smartest city in the world. As a result of the city’s support for local public transportation and electric vehicles, there are now 500 hybrid taxis on the streets of Barcelona, as well as nearly 300 public electric vehicles and an estimated 400 private electric cars. Barcelona has also implemented a programme that calls for the intelligent networking of energy and water supplies, recycling, lighting and mobility systems.  The aim is to improve quality of life and protect the environment.

Smart cities make use of digital technologies, networking and automation to enhance the performance of urban services and infrastructure. This reduces costs and energy consumption, while also increasing the quality of life for inhabitants.

Keeping CO2 in check

The number of people who live in cities is rapidly increasing, with the world’s biggest metropolitan area, Tokyo, home to 37 million people. In fact, the United Nations estimates that nearly 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2030. This volume of growth could cause a lot of strain for urban infrastructure, with many cities already struggling to keep up with road capacity, water and energy supplies. The increase in urban populations also means that cities need to rethink the way they address emergency situations to ensure the safety of all inhabitants.

Energy efficiency plays a big part in the smart city. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that the close relationship between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions is weakening. The reason? Power is being produced and consumed more efficiently across different applications.

As industry moves into an era of smart factories, industrial automation is making energy efficiency a higher priority. For example, semi-conductor manufacturer Infineon Technologies is offering 8-bit microcontroller units for motor controls, pumps and fans in a bid to reduce energy consumption.

Innovations that bring together digital technologies and energy reduction are widespread. They include technology like smart sensors and control systems that monitor and reduce the energy consumption of buildings and interoperable communicating devices, such as temperature and air quality sensors, variable speed drives and robots.


Technology for a new era

The smart cities era will be made possible by a move towards sustainability and reduced power consumption, both of which are being led by industrial automation. Sustainability, in terms of energy and resource efficiency is a key ingredient for the success of the global manufacturing industry.

Factories of the future will be driven by cloud computing, cyber security and mobile and wireless communication technologies. Accordingly, the need for higher productivity and greater efficiency is driving organisations to implement more interaction between the factory floor and enterprise level.

Miniaturised sensors and networks that interconnect factory equipment can also help minimise power consumption and push us towards an era of smart cities. The quality of air and water, the movement of people and objects, the changes in weather, the road traffic and the production and consumption of energy can be measured using sensors. It can all be tracked and communicated in real time. It is through interconnecting physical objects, buildings, factories, vehicles, power generation plants and lighting systems that cities will become smart.

Smart energy, water and transport

Perhaps the biggest hurdle on the road to the smart city is integrating a wide range of systems and equipment from different vendors and different eras, into one coherent network. Every object in the network should be able to collect and share data. Monitoring and control systems need to be in place to archive the data. Predictive data analysis will allow operators to identify issues before they occur and take remedial action. No matter how you look at it, smart cities won’t be able to exist without industrial automation and big data.

One area where most cities already need improvements is the smart grid. The strain on urban areas when it comes to electricity demands is only going to grow with increasing population numbers. To keep up with demand, the nature of the energy grid needs to change to allow energy inputs from new sources like renewables and cogeneration.

International standards, such as IEC 61850, are setting the foundations for smart grids. IEC 61850 refers to the design of substation automation systems and aims to minimise interface compatibility problems. It allows substations in the entire grid to use the same communication channel for all data, in real time, through Ethernet.

In a similar way, water systems can benefit from industrial automation. Water supply and treatment processes can be optimised using sensors and intelligent electronic devices, in combination with SCADA and asset management technologies. Securely integrated water infrastructure monitoring should be able to detect real-time water leakages, unusual chemical levels and other faults or inefficiencies.

Urban transportation usually accounts for up to 40 per cent of total city emissions. By introducing electric vehicles, the carbon footprint of a city can be significantly reduced. Regenerative braking allows a vehicle – car, bus, train or light rail – to generate energy every time it breaks, something that comes in particularly handy in urban environments. However, electric vehicles are useless without the relevant infrastructures and smart grids.

An intelligent urban transportation system should also include traffic signal management, monitoring of public transport levels and signage updated in real time.

Legacy systems and equipment are commonly found in energy, water and transport. Luckily, older industrial automation systems can easily be retrofitted with smart sensors and scalable controls, so a full refurbishment is not always necessary.

Building smart bridges

Buildings account for the largest share of energy consumed in most cities. Opportunities exist to make them more efficient and control energy usage intelligently. This can be achieved for example by automatically adjusting the window blinds when the sun is too intense or by linking lighting and air conditioning to occupancy.

Energy efficiency solutions, such as variable speed drives, can dramatically reduce the energy required to run air conditioning. Variable speed drives can minimize HVAC costs by 20 to 50 percent. Full building automation solutions intelligently control everything from window shutters to heating and cooling in response to weather, occupancy and energy prices.

Cities around the world must face the challenges of accommodating their increasing populations to become more sustainable, competitive and overall, nicer places to live in. Many intelligent power and automation solutions already exist to enable cities to automate their key public and industrial services. It may be a while before we have a world of smart cities, but the industrial automation industry is helping to push us along.