The city of Bristol has announced a multi-million pound experiment to create the smart city of the future. Work is already underway to turn the city into a high-tech testbed for innovation, with a 30 Gigabit per second fibre broadband network powering the ambitious research project.
The city’s council is working with Bristol University and commercial partners including Japanese firm NEC to equip the city with the latest in sensor and connectivity technology. The high-speed fibre network, which makes use of disused cable ducting owned by the city, is being combined with the university’s £12m supercomputer and a new ‘city operating system’ that will power the experimental network.
Known as Bristol is Open, the project will effectively turn Bristol into a giant laboratory and look at how big data can be used to solve problems such as air pollution, traffic congestion and assisted living for the elderly. The network could also be used to collect and understand data from the city’s trial of self-driving cars. Bristol is one of four UK cities currently testing driverless car technology as part of a government scheme.
Peter Wilson, managing director of Bristol is Open, said the experiment was “disruptive” to existing infrastructure and would look at how networks can “measure beyond consumption and into quality of life”. He described it as the “mother of all big data systems”.
“Bristol has already opened up almost two hundred of the city’s data sets on traffic flows, energy use, crime and health trends to kickstart the creation of innovative new services,” Wilson said, adding that the technology would allow people to “interact, work and play with their city.”
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The project has received £5.3 million in funding from the government’s connected cities plan, with support and technology being provided by the city council, university and a number of commercial partners. In total Bristol is Open said it had access to £75m worth of infrastructure and technology.
To support the project a new mile-long stretch of wireless connectivity is being rolled out along the ‘Brunel Mile’ running from Temple Meads station to the SS Great Britain. As well as providing ubiquitous connectivity the area will also be used to test experimental wireless technology such as 5G mobile broadband. A mesh Wi-Fi network will also be installed across Bristol city centre, using 1,500 lamp posts to create a “canopy of connectivity”.
Sensors and other internet of things devices will be hooked up to the network to collect huge amounts of data from the city. In one example it would be possible to use tracking technology to collect location data from vehicles used by the health, education and city transport sectors to try and solve the city’s traffic congestion problems.
In order to understand and manage the data collected by the city a new kind of operating system has been developed. For the past few years Bristol university’s high performance networks lab has been working on what it calls a ‘city network operating system’.
Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, project lead and chief technology office at Bristol is Open, explained that the operating system would allow people to innovative “from down in the ground to up in the cloud”. She said the network was designed to be “open, agnostic and programmable,” adding that it was also future-proof. “When 10G [mobile broadband] comes, this infrastructure will be ready,” she claimed.
Unlike operating systems used on home computers, which become outdated and only support certain software, the technology being developed by Simeonidou and her team is completely open. She described the project as a “software-defined network”.
The operating system will essentially provide access to the network and the data it collects. This could be sensor data from air quality monitors or traffic data from driverless cars. A number of different experiments will be carried out with a view to understanding how best to handle the data produced by a smart city. In the future commercial companies will also be able to access and contribute to the smart city network.
In order to manage all the data being collected the network will be split up into ‘slices’, with each application handed a portion of available bandwidth from the city-wide 30 Gigabit per second fibre network. Such network bandwidth would, for example, allow for multiple streams of 4K video to be carried at once.
As well as understanding how Bristol can be made smarter, the experiment will also look at implementing smart city technology around the world. The network has a built-in emulator that allows it to simulate any city in the world. Simeonidou said it would be possible to take data from New York and run it on Bristol’s network as if it were real. The system could then be exported and used in other cities.
“We are going to drive innovation,” Simeonidou said. “We’re creating an environment where in a year or two, not five, the whole world will look at Bristol for the future of smart cities”.
The experiment will also look at how cities of the future can be more fun. Playable City, a project run by the Watershed creative studio, plans to use the new network to run a number of experiments. Last year artists ‘hacked’ lamp posts around the city with cameras and projectors to record people’s shadows. These shadows were then played back onto the pavement.
Dick Penny, managing director of Watershed said extra connectivity and bandwidth would allow it to create projects on a much larger scale.
“We really can do awesome numbers,” he explained. “Where the mesh network is rolled out you will hopefully be able to walk around and maintain a connection”. Such connectivity, he said, would allow for more ambitious experiments.
The city’s planetarium is also being hooked up to the smart city network. It will become the UK’s first 4K, 3D planetarium with a complete computer model of the universe. As well as allowing visitors to explore space the planetarium will also be used as a ‘data dome’, allowing companies to visualise data normally found in Excel spreadsheets. It will also be used to aid academic research with huge files being sent from the university supercomputer, allowing academics to manipulate scientific data in 3D. The new planetarium will open on 31 March.
The entire Bristol is Open project will undergo testing between April and June 2015 before entering beta testing in September. The experiment aims to open to “a wide range of external partners” before the end of 2015.
This article originally appeared in Wired UK.