How automation is making modern cities more efficient

Now the focus of some of the world’s biggest companies, automated homes and buildings are in full view. On a quieter front, however, we’re also moving toward more automated, energy-efficient cities. There are a few concepts that have been deployed, and some really interesting ones that we may see in the not so distant future.

Intermittent Escalators

Most of the world’s subway stations are equipped with escalators. At rush hour, there’s a steady succession of passengers to justify their constant rotation. Most other times, travelers are sparse, and there’s a ton of energy wasted keeping them running.

To reclaim unnecessarily expended resources, cities throughout much of Asia and Europe are implementing variable speed or automatic start escalators. The latter being the type that starts moving only as a passenger approaches and also uses upwards of 50 percent less electricity than an always on escalator. Variable speed models are good for about a 15 percent reduction.

To illustrate what sort of cuts we’re talking about, the following comparison might be helpful. Your typical 35 foot escalator in a subway or airport uses somewhere around 60,000 KwH of electricity every year. That’s about six times the average American household.

Considering the sheer scale of their presence – there are multiple escalators in every subway station, airport, and shopping mall the world over – a reduction of this size is certainly substantial.

Highway Lighting & Pedestrian Lamps

After falling on hard financial times, cities in North America and Europe began intermittently powering down street lights in an attempt to reduce energy bills. Others were worried about having the funds to keep them on at all. While unfortunate, this course of action highlights the impact lighting can have on a city’s operating budget.

Recently, some areas have taken to reducing costs before disaster strikes by installing a combination of energy-efficient, solid state lighting and a smart sensors.The idea is to not only reduce the cost of street lamps while they’re in use, but to make sure they’re only in use when they’re needed (or at the very least dimmed when not needed).

Deployments for such systems are hardly widespread, but limited tests have been met with critical success. Once street lamps are networked, the benefits exceed energy savings. That is, intelligent lighting can also speed up repairs of burnt out lamps or even be used to signal a state of emergency.

A lot of work may still be needed in to be sure solutions are stable enough for highways or high-traffic roads, but, again, if you think about the sheer number of street lamps that burn all night long in countries all around the world, the potential for energy savings is astounding.

Public Services & Transportation

Despite some widely publicized setbacks in the pursuit of machine-guided automobiles, the technology to navigate complex roadways is evolving pretty rapidly. In Italy, for example, select municipalities trust robotic garbage trucks to make curbside pickups. Since roads are already highly organized, well-marked systems, the essential problem is simply teaching a machine to understand them. And though this isn’t a high traffic scenario, it’s likely indicative of what’s to come.

If you are inclined to think that this last scenario foreshadows robotic encroachment on more human jobs lest we put an end to it, some may beg to differ. According to at least one industry watcher, technologies like Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) and the others discussed have the potential to revolutionize the way we commute but also to usher in a new era of manufacturing and job creation.

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