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IoT goes above and below ground to make cities healthier

Stephen Lawson | Nov. 16, 2015
Sensor equipment is getting smaller and smarter for detailed, hyperlocal data

Smart cities could become healthier cities as the Internet of Things learns to gauge conditions from the sky to the sewer.

Fledgling IoT teams working above and below ground came out for the Re.Work Connect Summit conference in San Francisco on Thursday. Both say they can help cities understand and anticipate things that affect human health. With smaller devices and smarter analytics, they're improving upon the systems that have been testing urban conditions for years.

The so-called "smart cities" trend has generated a lot of attention for things like automated traffic, parking management and better transit, but urban life also has an underside of health dangers. For the Senseable City Lab at MIT, that side is found literally underground. Its Underworlds project is analyzing sewage for signs of diseases and poor health.

20141112 newsha ghaeli mit
Stephen Lawson Newsha Ghaeli, a research fellow at MIT's Senseable City Lab, addressed the Re.Work Connect Summit conference in San Francisco on Nov. 12, 2015.

"You can tell a lot about a person by sampling their gut. And as this data is flushed down the toilet, there's a vast reservoir of information on human health and behavior that goes with it," Project Manager Newsha Ghaeli said.

It's not a new concept, but today most sewage testing happens at wastewater treatment plants, which are miles from the source and collect material from all over the city. The Underworlds project, like other IoT deployments, brings it down to the hyperlocal level.

By studying sewage on a street or neighborhood level, the researchers hope to learn things like where outbreaks of disease begin and even detect pathogens before people start getting sick. Flu viruses and other bugs incubate in people's bodies before they cause symptoms.

Testing can also uncover things like markers for diabetes and obesity, which are major public health issues in many U.S. cities. Tracking those factors could help in evaluating government policies, like New York City's recently passed law restricting the size of sugary drinks, Ghaeli said.

MIT started its research in its hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it has carefully lowered iPhone-controlled robots into the city's antique sewers in about 10 locations. The robots collect the dirty water and run it through a filter to isolate the kinds of residue the researchers are interested in. After the robot has collected several samples, the scientists retrieve the filters and take them into a lab. The goal is to eventually build a near-real-time sewage information network with testing done by the robots in the field.

The team is already on its second-generation robot, Luigi, a slimmed-down version of its bulky predecessor, Mar.io. Luigi is also cheaper to build and can sterilize itself after doing its work, saving the researchers a lot of work, Ghaeli said.

 

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