Our surroundings are getting smarter every day. Our homes are more connected all the time, and our digital assistants can order us a pizza, get our groceries, check the weather and even answer the door. Our cars are smart enough to drive — or at least parallel park — themselves. We are even seeing buildings becoming smarter, as their HVAC systems, elevators, lights and other aspects are becoming connected via the internet of things. But what about the other, less sexy but equally important parts of our everyday lives, like the infrastructure that ties our communities, cities, states and countries together?
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According to the dictionary, infrastructure is “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” Anyone paying attention to the current leadership in the United States will know that this term is frequently mentioned, and oftentimes so in the context of needing investment and overhaul. Of course, if you have driven on some of the roads in the United States or used the well-worn airports, then you can attest: the infrastructure needs some upgrading.
But, does it need some digitizing as well? In short, yes. As nations such as the United States attempt to overhaul their infrastructure, while developing regions looks to modernize, weaving IoT will bring benefits for both general maintenance, but also the possibility for new business models.
Smarter power grid means greater power efficiency. Cities, such as San Diego, are already working to connect the power grid, allowing the city to better monitor and adjust for outages. Bringing more connectivity to the grid offers municipalities an opportunity to better ensure consistent access to power. While IoT will not prevent a nor’easter from cutting electricity to thousands of homes in New England, or avoid outages due to hurricanes coming through the Gulf of Mexico, it can help to better monitor unexpected surges or less dramatic outages. Power companies will be better equipped to understand where surges are happening and where they can throttle down power to areas that have expected down times. Moreover, IoT gives officials the ability to better identify the cause of an unexpected outage. Down the road, power companies could incentive consumers’ behaviors. Knowing the details of the usage could open the door for power companies to be savvier in terms of how they work with their customers to better utilize power.
Our roadways can power our cars and fix our potholes. Anyone who has an NFC-enabled smartphone already knows about wirelessly charging your mobile phone — but what about your car? There are already experiments underway to explore electrifying roads that can allow an electric car to be charged while driving. Furthermore, roads will not only be able to charge your car, but will become smarter by understanding and sensing the wear and tear, being able to proactively anticipate when repairs are needed, and also providing usage data. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, productivity losses amount to $100 billion due to congestion and poor road conditions. If our roads become smarter, they can allow for more efficient repairs and better routing optimization. Smart roads will be able to communicate with the vehicles that are using the roads to better optimize traffic, as well as ensure greater up time.
Airports, ports and railways. If you have traveled to New York recently and used LaGuardia Airport, you know that the airport is going through a massive, much needed overhaul. But are these aspects of infrastructure ready for more than just a structural overhaul? Airports are always a symphony of chaos. Adding digital technologies to this cacophony might bring more structure to our airports — and the same is true for ports and rail heads. Airports like those in Dubai are looking to bring IoT to better manage the flow of cargo, planes and even passengers through the terminal. Cargo ships are already leaning on RFID to allow for better track and trace of containers through the port. The next step for this infrastructure is to tie this data to the greater network. These transformation nodes becoming more digital would allow for greater optimization within their four walls, but also, when tied back into the greater infrastructure, allow for enhanced supply chain productivity.
Technology leads to better water management. Looking at the UN statistics, one of the biggest issues our planet faces is getting clean water to a wide swath of the population. How can IoT possibly address this issue? Better insights into our water infrastructure can begin to reduce loses via poor pipes and valves. Digitizing the water infrastructure can also allow for more efficient data to gauge how the water is being distributed and used. By some estimates, a state such as California could save millions of gallons of water if they were to adopt universal smart metering of their water usage. Greater insight into the physical movement of water, as well as how it is truly being used at the final point of distribution, allows for water companies to bring efficiencies to the network.
Infrastructure is vital to any community or society, as we all utilize it daily, and leaning on digital technology can enhance it greatly. Greater digitization means greater ability to measure how our infrastructure is being used. If we can measure it, then we can improve it and, overall, reduce waste. In the long term, this could also lead to the adoption of new business models. As we have seen with a number of use cases, digitization makes way to endless opportunities — so why not apply our learnings to infrastructure?
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