Cyber-physical systems help smart cities raise their IQ

Fri, 2015-05-08 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Many smart city benefits come from sensors that are connected to the Internet, providing managers with key information they can use to optimize city services. But now thanks to advances in communications and other technology, the sensors themselves are getting smarter.

These intelligent systems are able to keep the lights on even during severe storms, monitor at-risk patients to get them medical care before they suffer a critical emergency, and even fight wildfires from space.

The new intelligence comes from what’s known as cyber-physical systems. These systems that don’t replace the Internet of Things (IoT), the backbone of sensor-driven smart cities. Rather, it builds upon it.

While cyber-physical systems themselves are not new, leaps in capabilities are making them more realistic and useful for cities today. Council Lead Partner IBM has published a new article that explains the benefits specifically relating to smart cities.

What are cyber-physical systems?
Cyber-physical systems are those able to process and act on the information they collect. They integrate sensors, computers and control systems in an intelligent network. These sensors don’t operate in isolation. All the sensors work together to provide a deep view of a system or the environment that a control system acts upon.

Some cities already make use of cyber-physical systems. A self-healing electrical gridsuch as the one Council Lead Partner S&C Electric installed in Tennessee which automatically routes electricity around outages, is one example.

But there’s even greater potential, especially as the communications networks grow more robust and computer processors grow more powerful. Driverless cars, which act on information from their sensors and communicate with other vehicles, are a futuristic example that many companies are working on.

Satellites help fight wildfires
Wildfires, already a year-round problem in California, are expected to grow worse as the drought becomes more severe. But a new tool called WIFIRE, which itself is a cyber-physical system, may help make firefighters more effective against them.

WIFIRE combines satellite data with real-time feeds from sensors on the ground to monitor the wildfire and predict where it will go next and how fast it will expand. This helps crews determine their best approach to maximize their effectiveness and minimize life and property loss.

Health care and disaster recovery too
IBM’s primer paints a picture of how the systems could help the seriously ill. At-risk patients could receive continuous monitoring at home. The system could immediately alert medical staff if there was an alarming change in the patient’s vital signs, possibly allowing for corrective treatment without rushing them to the emergency room.

And the National Science Foundation, which has been advocating for cyber-physical systems for years, says they could also help after natural disasters too. Smart buildings could check themselves for damage, automatically shutting down elevators or triggering an evacuation if they detect critical flaws with the structural integrity. Smart drones deployed after the disaster would be able to determine what help was needed where, intelligently dropping relief supplies where they’re needed most.

For all the potential, researchers behind cyber-physical system projects are a bit frustrated their work isn’t already in wide use. Researchers presenting at a recent National Science Foundation conference in Seattle say they can’t wait for their work to reach people and are working with the organization now on ways to do work that moves from the labs to the streets much faster.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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