Bluetooth in the Smart City

I live on the outskirts of London. It’s a great place to live, with all the attractions of a big city only a short train ride away to the North and green English countryside in the other direction. But like many cities, London has its problems; problems which, perhaps, technology can help alleviate.

The current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced last year a new smart city roadmap for London. Smarter London Together aims to make London the world’s smartest city and to solve some of its most pressing problems.

London has been exploring smart city concepts and opportunities for some time, and Mr Khan’s predecessor alluded to some of the problems which a growing city like London must contend with:

“From 2011 to 2021, London’s population will grow by a million – the fastest rate of acceleration ever. We are going to hit nine million before New York and approach ten million by 2030. With these demographic projections, we will have at least another 641,000 jobs, another 800,000 homes, and more than 600,000 extra passengers will need to travel by public transport at peak times by 2031. There will be the challenge of dealing with increasing waste and meeting extra pressure on healthcare and energy supplies.”

Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London

London isn’t alone in facing problems which are related to growth. The United Nations have said that “Rapid urbanisation and unplanned growth pose significant challenges – greater demand for natural resources such as water and energy, increased pollution, and impacts on biodiversity. The world’s cities occupy just 2% of the Earth’s land but account for up to 80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon dioxide emissions (UN, 2014)”.

The UN also states that “54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. Projections show that urbanization combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa”.

“The world’s cities occupy just 2% of the Earth’s land but account for up to 80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon dioxide emissions.”

The term smart city has been around for many years now. But what does it mean?

What is a Smart City?

The British Standards Institute (BSI) defines smart cities as the effective integration of physical, digital, and human systems in the built environment to deliver sustainable, prosperous, and inclusive future for its citizens (BSI, 2014).

The Smarter London Together roadmap says, “A smart city is a collaborative, connected, and responsive city. It integrates digital technologies and uses city-wide data to respond to our citizens’ needs.

Both definitions give a good sense of what the term smart city means, and the key words they contain help us understand which issues are given the greatest emphasis.

Sustainability is a concept very commonly found in smart city definitions. It refers to the need to support the development of cities in such a way that the environment, the health and wellbeing of citizens, the city’s services and systems, infrastructure, and economy do not degrade as the city grows. London’s Olympic Park, built for the 2012 Olympic Games, is a pioneering example of smart city ideas supporting sustainability.

Connectedness of systems, services, and people is another core concept of the smart city. A city is often thought of as a system of systems. Therefore, connectedness and interoperability are essential. Connectivity allows people to access services (anywhere and anytime), systems to collaborate, and smart devices to be deployed. Allied with connectedness is interoperability where technical standards ensure that disparate systems and devices work together to create the connected smart city.

Citizens are central to smart city projects. There’s a consensus in the smart city community that smart cities should better serve the city’s citizens, help provide a better quality of life, and that involving citizens in smart city projects is key to their success.

Open Data is data which anyone can access, use and share. It’s common to find smart city projects delivering comprehensive open data sets, often collected with the help of citizens and the smart devices they carry about their person.

What are the Challenges?

Creating a smart city isn’t easy, and there are all sorts of challenges to overcome.

Interoperability of Systems

To achieve the level of connectedness that is required to transform a city into a properly integrated system of systems, standards are essential. There is no generally accepted, unifying technical standard for all smart city systems and devices in existence. So, the next best option for smart city designers is to ensure that the set of technologies used, especially communications technologies, are themselves governed by mature, formal technical standards.

Security

Security is of paramount importance. Networked systems which can be controlled remotely must be protected from unauthorised, malicious access.

Where personal data such as health-related data and location information is being collected, the privacy of that data must be assured, and citizens should have full knowledge of the data being collected and its use.

Ethics

The support of citizens is an important ingredient in the success of smart city projects. Citizens must believe that systems will deliver benefits and that trusting the owners and operators of such systems is warranted. To achieve and retain that trust over the long term, citizens and their data must be treated in an ethical way.

This is a complex subject and full of potentially, counter-intuitive scenarios. Examples include the need to obtain consent regarding the harvesting of personal data, openness regarding its use (this may also be a legal requirement in some parts of the world), and the algorithms involved. But it’s not just about data, consent, and privacy. Smart city systems, designed to optimise one aspect of the city’s performance (e.g. to reduce commute times), should not disadvantage one group of citizens over another. Citywide systems involving large numbers of citizens may deliver unintended consequences if care is not exercised.

In the UK, a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation has been established, and the board of the Smarter London Together initiative are working with it.

Bluetooth and the Smart City Challenges

Not all smart city challenges can be solved by technology. Laws, policies, ethics frameworks, codes of conduct, and other mechanisms have their place too.

Many challenges are firmly rooted in the world of technology, however, and so it’s to technology we must turn for solutions.

Technologies used in smart city solutions must be able to meet the identified security requirements, and formal standards must govern technologies to maximise the interoperability and connectedness which can be achieved.

Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) devices can achieve FIPS compliance using the appropriate selection of the Bluetooth LE security features. FIPS stipulates stringent security measures and may be regarded as a good yardstick for security. Bluetooth mesh has its own, distinct set of security capabilities which are mandatory so that no single device can reduce the overall security of the network. Every message is encrypted and authenticated, the security of the network layer and of different applications are separated, and physical areas can be cryptographically isolated from each other.

All Bluetooth technologies are defined by extensive, formal specifications, and the standards work that delivers and maintains these specifications is governed by a standards body, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). One of the central aims of this work is to achieve the highest levels of device interoperability possible.

How Bluetooth is Making Cities Smarter

Bluetooth is playing a part in smart cities in various ways and has the potential to do more, especially in the light of the substantial increase in range which Bluetooth 5 offers and the entirely new use cases supported by Bluetooth mesh. Let’s review some examples.

Location Services

Bluetooth LE can broadcast messages, allowing one device to communicate with every other Bluetooth LE device which is receiving and in range. When Bluetooth LE was first released, this simple, yet powerful capability was immediately seized upon to create a new and exciting Bluetooth device type, the Bluetooth beacon.

Beacons broadcast a unique ID or sometimes a web site URL. They can be placed in static positions or attached to moving objects, including people. When a device like a smartphone is close enough to be in range of a beacon, it can use the unique beacon ID it receives to deduce where the user is, what they are close to, and take action. Beacons can be used in a number of different ways in the smart city.

Proximity Solutions

With the transmission power turned down relatively low to limit range, beacons can be used to trigger the display of information on a smartphone application whenever the user is close enough to the beacon. The experience of visiting museums, art galleries, tourist hot spots, and transportation hubs can be transformed by beacons strategically placed throughout a facility to make visits more enjoyable, informative, and hassle-free.

With beacon transmission range increased, shoppers walking down the high street can be alerted and enticed by special offers from their favourite store across the street. This is beneficial to both the shopper and the retailer.

Using beacons for proximity applications makes the smart city a responsive, interactive digital world where simply walking near to something delivers contextual information right there on your smartphone’s screen.

Indoor Navigation

We take GPS and the amazing smartphone applications for mapping and navigation which we use for granted. But GPS signals cannot be received inside most buildings and certainly not in underground tunnels. Bluetooth beacons, deployed around large, complex buildings or in places like underground metro systems, can be used in conjunction with a smartphone application to create sophisticated indoor navigation systems.

In a large shopping centre in Milton Keynes, a British city north of London, a Bluetooth beacon indoor navigation system has been installed. What makes this particular system stand out is that it was designed primarily to help visually impaired shoppers with their smartphone application, providing audio descriptions of the shops they are closest to. Smart cities should and, as demonstrated in this example, can be more accessible places for everyone with help from Bluetooth beacons.

Space Utilisation 

Smartphones can report the beacon IDs they encounter to central systems over the internet so that a clear picture is obtained of what parts of a building or city are being used by people and to what extent. This location and space utilisation information can help building owners, architects, and city planning departments make better planning decisions and identify opportunities for improvement. Clearly, this is an application which must be completely transparent, ideally totally anonymous, and to which citizens must opt-in.

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Citizens and Sensor Data

With an internet-connected, personal computer in their pockets, citizens carry a great deal of computing and communications power with them every day. That computer is the smartphone. These days, all smartphones have Bluetooth on board, and this opens up an interesting opportunity, allowing certain types of smart city issues to be tackled in a highly cost-effective way.

The acquisition of data about the city environment is important in many smart city ideas. Tackling pollution necessarily involves monitoring pollution levels across the city and building a comprehensive picture of how it varies by location and over time. Monitoring traffic flow and determining journey times for commuters requires data.

Sensors which measure environmental conditions can be deployed across a city. Applications installed on smartphones by opted-in citizens can collect sensor data using Bluetooth as the user passes by and upload it to the cloud. This approach to collecting sensor data in the smart city is called crowd-sensing.

The devices carried by a citizen can themselves yield valuable data. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi devices may emit signals which make them detectable, and this can be exploited. In various cities across the world, including Aarhus in Denmark, Portsmouth in the UK, and Zurich in Switzerland, real-time traffic monitoring and traffic queue detection systems have been installed. These systems work by collecting data extracted from Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals from vehicles and their occupants as they pass points in the road network. Collected data is then uploaded to cloud-based systems for statistical analysis.

Smart Ticketing – A Bluetooth Case Study in the Smart City

One of the areas in which Bluetooth is already having an impact in the smart city is public transport ticketing. Public transport is the life blood of large cities, bringing workers to and from their workplaces, helping reduce traffic on the roads, and limiting pollution. But public transport is subject to the same stresses and strains that other urban systems must cope with as cities grow.

The development of more efficient ways of handling the growing numbers of passengers using public transport is a key element of the transport scalability problem.

In recent years, we’ve seen a move away from physical tickets where passengers are required to queue and buy a ticket from a human employee or a machine and then present that ticket, either feeding it into an automated gate or physically showing it to another employee, to a ticket inspector. The process of issuing and validating physical tickets is slow and expensive, and the throughput of passengers in railway and metro stations or getting onto buses is a factor in the overall performance and capacity of the transport system.

These days, many transport systems exploit contactless tickets, usually based on Near Field Communications (NFC). These systems allow standard contactless debit cards or special pre-paid stored value cards to be used to pay for journeys and gain access to the bus or train simply by tapping the card against a reader on entry to the station or bus and tapping out at the end of the journey. This has improved efficiency and passenger throughput.

Bluetooth is set to take ticketing to the next level and make urban transportation systems even more efficient and scalable using a special application of Bluetooth beacon technology.

Two models for using Bluetooth in ticketing scenarios are envisaged: Walk-In / Walk-Out and Be-In / Be-Out.

Walk-In / Walk-Out

Walk-In / Walk-Out is best suited to railway and metro stations where access to the public area of stations does not require a ticket but progressing beyond the station, usually through gates, does.

In the Walk-In / Walk-Out model, Bluetooth LE makes Automatic Fare Collection (AFC) possible as follows.

  • The passenger enters a detection zone within the public area of the station
  • Their smartphone and the ticketing application it is running enables entrance to the zone to be detected, and an electronic ticket automatically issued to the passenger
  • The gate opens when the passenger approaches it 
  • They are charged at the end of their journey when they are detected, in a similar manner, leaving their destination station

Systems like this are being actively evaluated around the world. Thoughts about their use includes general use for all passengers and to enable fast-track lanes for selected, priority passengers, which may include those who are mobility impaired. This is another example of Bluetooth LE improving accessibility in the smart city environment.

Be-In / Be-Out


Be-In / Be-Out is an adaption of the Walk-In / Walk-Out model for use in environments like buses and trams. Simply getting onto the bus and being inside it is sufficient for AFC to occur with no physical gestures or tickets required.

Shanghai Metro is one of the largest metro networks in China with the highest capacity. Using Bluetooth, Shanghai Metro has created a ridership payment option that creates a seamless, smart city experience for passengers. Shanghai Metro’s use of Bluetooth ensures that the app works every time — even if your smartphone is outside cellular service range. Shanghai Metro’s application of Bluetooth technology is another example of how Bluetooth location services are enhancing the traveller and commuter experience and improving the quality of life for citizens around the globe.

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Smarter Buildings = Smarter Cities

Bluetooth mesh is making buildings smart. With building sensors, luminaires, air conditioning, heating units, and more acting as a node in a Bluetooth mesh network, buildings are becoming intelligent, self-optimising environments which save money, consume less energy, and create a better environment for the people that use them.

But what if a city’s Bluetooth mesh smart buildings were themselves networked? Local government could monitor the status and performance of all public buildings from a central location. Data from buildings constructed from the same materials and to a similar design could be accrued, compared, and analysed. Patterns and anomalies would be revealed. Stark differences in performance measures, such as energy efficiency in buildings which are, on the surface, very similar, would be identified. Then, with further analysis, it should be possible for mitigating actions to be identified.

Networking smart buildings to gain the level of analytical insight and the degree of control and self-optimisation that should be possible is a relatively new idea, but it’s one which Bluetooth mesh in smart buildings will help make possible.

Conclusion

Cities are complex and must cope with the growing demands placed upon them. Smart cities are emerging in response to the challenges facing the modern urban environment and various technologies, including Bluetooth, are already helping make life better for the people who live and work in them. Whether it’s with location services, crowd-sensing of data, smart ticketing in transportation, or smart buildings, Bluetooth is there!