Back in the '20s when this photo was taken, police walked the beat and electric streetlights were turned on manually with a switch. Then things got really sophisticated when streetlights got photocells and turned themselves on when it got dark. 

But when you think about it, streetlights could do so much more. Or, they could do much less. Why have them on if nobody is around to need them? Sami Grover has noted that streetlights are getting smarter, but how smart can they get?

Down in the Research Triangle in North Carolina, Sensus is building smart streetlights for the smart city. The company's VantagePoint technology and software lets cities manage every streetlight independently over what it calls the FlexNet communication network. Every single streetlight becomes an independent node in the Internet of Things.

connected streetlight

This is no dumb lamp; it's part of the Internet of Things. (Photo: Sensus)

This lets the people controlling the lights do interesting things. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the city replaced 26,000 streetlights with new efficient fixtures connected by the FlexNet network. According to Sensus, “The new FlexNet lighting control system will allow officials to maintain precise operation of each lamp from one location to determine the appropriate output for the area and time of day. They will also know immediately when a light requires maintenance instead of having to rely on visual confirmation from the field.” The immediate result of the change to smart LED bulbs was a big saving on the electric bill.

But they have found other creative uses for the system. They pump up the output at closing time for the stores, making customers feel safer. They can do it again at bar closing time. In fact, if the police get a report of activity near a particular set of streetlights, they can crank up the output. (As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted way back in 1914, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”)

There are more opportunities to come. Dan Howe of the city of Raleigh described some of the possible uses of smart streetlighting in an article, noting that we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg:

Imagine: all those thousands of poles evenly spaced on nearly every street in your town, and along highways connecting you with other towns, could be not only sources of light, but interactive data nodes with the ability to provide real-time information back to city hall and emergency responders, as well as services to local residents. “Smart” streetlights could monitor traffic flow, remotely get brighter or dimmer in support of first responders during an emergency, read utility meters from nearby houses, serve as Wi-Fi hot spots, and more.
Many people are experimenting with smart lighting controls in their homes; imagine if we had the same kind of control for all of our lighting — the ability to change intensity and color, to program for uses and seasons and holidays. They become so much more than just lights. 

Streetlights and lampposts have played a major role in our cultural landscape since they were invented, extolled in song by everyone from George Formby (that's him singing in the video above) to Frank Sinatra. But they could be so much more. Sensus is really on to something here; this is smart stuff. 

The author met Sensus representatives as a guest of the Wake County Economic Development agency, on a visit to Raleigh and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.


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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

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