From inside Intel Labs: using sensors, data, and LEDs to make cities better

Intel’s blue sky research group Intel Labs is tinkering with public sensors, big data and algorithms to create experimental ways to track environmental conditions in cities. During Intel Lab’s annual show-and-tell in San Francisco last week, Intel showed off some of these futuristic concepts (as well as how to put a projector in a phone).
Here’s three ways that Intel Labs is looking to make cities better, from reducing allergies, to crowd-sourcing city programs to using LEDs to reduce traffic accidents.
1). Freedom to breathe deeply: Allergies and asthma have increased markedly in the past decade, and climate change might be contributing to that. How can technology help? In Portland, Ore., Intel researchers are using sensors and public data about tree species and the weather to track air quality and map out areas that are free of allergy triggers. The 1-year-old project gave 25 sensors to residents of a northwest section of the city to install them at their homes. The sensors collect readings about carbon monoxide, volatile organic compound, ozone and others.
allergiesAt the same time, Intel researchers are also using city data about trees in public spaces, such as their species and trunk girth, and crossing them with data from the city of Eugene, also in Oregon, that show the pollination periods of the trees that are most likely to bring on allergies, Intel researcher Adam Laskowitz explained to us last week. By marrying that data with information about weather, project participants can check on the air quality of their neighborhoods and chart routes away from trees that cause their allergies to act up.
2). Civic collaboration: Turning citizens into collaborators around city-greening initiatives is the idea behind a project in Dublin, Ireland. The project, just launched, gives participants an app that allows them to check off the positive things they see around their cities, such as biodiversity and events with eco-friendly themes, as well as negative attributes such as a lack of bike lanes and littering.
bike laneAll the feedback goes to the city to help policy makers craft better programs or fix problems more quickly. The project includes a reward component to keep the participants’ interest up. They get points for participating and could use them to redeem museum entries or free rides on public transportation, Intel researcher Jessica McCarthy told us.
3). Blinking for safety: LED lights aren’t just a good source of efficient illumination, they also can be messengers. The blinking of the light signal, which happens too quickly for humans to see, can create a communication channel between two objects. In an Intel project with the National University in Taiwan, which is a big LED producing country, researchers are using the light signal to prevent traffic accidents.
The idea is to use LED lights to enable car-to-car communication and allow drivers to react more quickly. The project uses Yamaha scooters, one of which has a sensor mounted above the front headlight and acts as a light signal receiver. When the scooter in front turns on the left- or right-turn signal, the scooter with the sensor would pick up the information broadcast by the blinking LED light. The light signal can deliver information at up to 80 kilo-bits per second, said Intel researcher Yen-Kuang Chen.
traffic In the future, the project could equip one scooter with a navigational device that will communicate its route information to the scooter behind. This way, the scooter in the back could anticipate turns and other movements even if the rider of the scooter in front didn’t signal.
There will be 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, and using IT (big data, software, sensors) to help cities better manage their resources will be a major trend. Intel isn’t the only large tech company focused on this — IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, GE and many others are looking to using networks, silicon, and software to manage urban development.