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Science & Tech

If Boston Were Smart

Imagining intelligent traffic lights, parking spaces, buildings, and appliances

Last year, the Daily Beast named Boston the country’s smartest metropolitan area. The website was referring to the people of Boston, of course, not the city itself. But what if the city itself were smart? What if technology, designed by the smart people who work in Boston, could help us save time and energy and spare us from daily frustrations? We talked to some BU researchers who are studying, designing, and building the technology for a more enlightened city.

Smarter grid

Because the cost of electricity fluctuates throughout the day, depending on demand, smart meters that are currently available tell homeowners exactly how much energy they use and at what cost, encouraging them to delay energy-intensive activities until a time of day when demand and costs are low. Supported by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, Michael Caramanis, a College of Engineering professor of mechanical and systems engineering, John Baillieul, an ENG professor of mechanical engineering, and two MIT faculty members are collaborating on a study of how these and larger-scale measures could result in a smarter electricity grid. In the United States, we lose about 8 percent of energy because it travels long distances between points of generation to use. Caramanis thinks the loss could be greatly reduced if we got our energy from closer and cleaner sources. A smarter grid could help us do that.

Boston University BU, College of Engineering ENG professor of electrical and computer, Division of Systems Engineering, Christos Cassandras, building future smarter cities

Janusz Konrad and Venkatesh Saligrama, ENG professors of electrical and computer engineering, have developed algorithmic security cameras that spot unusual activity. Photo by Flickr contributor Miki Yoshihito

Smarter security

Security officers could sort through billions of hours of video footage and spot unusual events, such as someone attempting to enter a building in the middle of the night, using specially designed cameras with embedded algorithms. Janusz Konrad and Venkatesh Saligrama, both ENG professors of electrical and computer engineering, have developed the technology, supported by more than $800,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies.

Smarter HVAC

BU engineers have designed software that, once uploaded to a building’s HVAC system, would measure airflow room by room and revise it to meet minimum standards, decreasing energy costs while keeping occupants happy. The invention earned Michael Gevelber, an ENG associate professor of mechanical engineering, Donald Wroblewski, an ENG adjunct research professor, along with ENG and School of Management students first prize and $20,000 in this year’s MIT Clean Energy Competition. The team plans to develop and market the software through its newly formed company, Aeolus Building Efficiency.

Smarter traffic lights

A smart traffic lighting system would mine GPS information from cars and smartphones and count the number of vehicles waiting at red lights. If there is no approaching traffic, it would switch lights from red to green. Christos Cassandras, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering and head of the Division of Systems Engineering, is testing this system on a model minicity in his lab.

ENG’s Cassandras talks about the future of parking in cities.

Smarter parking

Cassandras, working with research assistant Yanfeng Geng (ENG’13), has developed the BU Smart Parking application, which can be downloaded to a smartphone from the iPhone App Store by searching “BU smartparking.” Drivers tell the app when and where they want to park, prioritizing price and location, and the app searches for available spaces, all of which are networked to the device. When the app identifies a spot that meets the search criteria, it tells the driver where to go. At the same time, a light installed above the spot turns from green to red. When the driver who made the reservations approaches, the light turns yellow. The catch? At the moment the system works only in BU’s 730 Commonwealth Avenue garage, but Cassandras hopes to expand it to private parking facilities throughout Boston.

Smarter lighting

The next-generation lightbulb could enhance sleep quality, send data like a Wi-Fi hotspot does, or help visitors navigate large buildings through a network of visible cues, while operating more efficiently. This technology is made possible by combining LEDs, sensors, and other control systems within a single hybrid bulb that needs 40 to 70 percent less energy than existing compact fluorescent lights or LED lightbulbs. It is being developed by Thomas Little, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate director of the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, working with researchers at the center under an $18.5 million National Science Foundation grant. Little is collaborating with colleagues from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of New Mexico.

Boston University BU, College of Engineering ENG professor of electrical and computer, Division of Systems Engineering, Christos Cassandras, building future smarter cities

Michael Caramanis, an ENG professor of mechanical and systems engineering, suggests that appliances connected to a home photovoltaic unit, like a solar panel, could be programmed to detect passing clouds and choose to cycle at a later time. Photo by Flickr contributor Savannah Corps

Smarter timing

Refrigerators and hot water heaters are duty-cycle appliances, meaning they need to run only two to three times each hour. Caramanis thinks they could be designed to communicate with the electricity grid and run when electrical demand is lowest during that time period. Alternatively, if either of these appliances is connected to a home photovoltaic unit, it could be programmed to detect when a passing cloud blocks the sun and choose to cycle at a later time. Caramanis says this technology is mostly being tested in pilot settings. A New Jersey–based company called FirstEnergy has installed temperature sensors and communication controllers that turn on and off the hot water heaters of thousands of consumers in relation to low or high energy costs in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland region.

Smarter central control

Imagine a network of sensors that would collect and send data to a centralized processor, which could order a garbage pickup or warn drivers of traffic jams. Cassandras, Ioannis Paschalidis, an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering and codirector of the Center for Information & Systems Engineering, and Assaf Kfoury, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of computer science, are testing a miniature version of this network in Cassandras’ lab, with help from a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

6 Comments
Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

6 Comments on If Boston Were Smart

  • Eric on 10.28.2013 at 8:03 am

    The traffic light idea is a good one. How often I’ve sat at a red light and cynically remarked, “Here comes crossing traffic. That means the light will now turn green for me in order to stop them!”

    The low technology solution was–during low volume periods like nighttime–to simply let the lights flash yellow for thru traffic and red for crossing traffic. That doesn’t seem to happen any more.

  • Joel on 10.28.2013 at 12:43 pm

    The problem is getting those smart people who live here to work in local government and administrative fields. I know it isn’t polite to point this out, but the smart folk mostly aren’t local, and the locals mostly aren’t smart. Just look at incredibly stupid MBTA or the bungling local law enforcement (marathon bombing case, e.g.) as evidence.

    • L on 10.28.2013 at 6:07 pm

      It isn’t about being polite- It’s about being informed and having respect for those who work to keep you safe. So please don’t comment on something that you really don’t understand.

  • dustin johnson on 10.29.2013 at 12:53 am

    Joel has exactly was the marathon bombing bungling? There is not a big city in the world that can prevent insane idiots willing to die.

  • Nathan on 10.29.2013 at 11:11 am

    Smarter office building security – smarter traffic ights – centralized traffic monitoring – smarter parking : You could make these ALL work better with LESS technology by allowing people to work from home. The first word in smarter living is REDUCE, then reuse and recycle.

  • ookbot on 09.22.2014 at 5:56 pm

    HAH!!! Smart city? Smart traffic lights? In Boston? The current traffic lights don’t even work; they are down all the time, blinking yellow or completely off. And hardly any of the crosswalk signs work properly. Maybe Boston could buy smart traffic lights if they stop paying police $100/hour (plus overtime on the weekends) to stand by construction sites and do nothing.

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