Category Archives: sensors

Smart cities without digging

Smart cities sound like a great idea — who wouldn’t want your city to be smart, or at least smarter? — but it usually involves lots of digging. What if we could have the sensors that make cities smart, without the holes?

Sensors need to be lain in the ground, or on street furniture, and often cables lain to connect them. This means more holes, which is something residents don’t like. A mayor in the Indian state of Goa threatened to seize the equipment of the local smart city corporation, Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Corporation Ltd, in May after they ignored the city’s ban on digging up its streets. (India is in the throes of developing 100 smart cities and is trying to come up with alternatives to the chaos wrought by digging — the city of Dehradun is proposing a ‘multi utility duct’ (see illustration) to house electricity cables and telephone cables. “This will avoid frequent digging roads for connections and repair of telephone cables.” Not a pretty solution, I have to say.) 

Anyway, for those cities that already have broadband fibre lain in the ground, Verizon has an interesting solution: converting these fibre cables into sensors using a technology called optical fibre sensing. Optical fibre sensing is used for monitoring power cables, tunnels, mines, railways and dams for fires, temperature, strain, rupture  — or even for whether someone violates a perimeter. But they require laying purpose-built cable, usually close to the surface. 

Verizon and NEC said this week they had used software and AI to monitor traffic — including density of vehicles, direction, speed, acceleration and deceleration — on Verizon’s existing communications cables. Purpose-built optical fibre has long been used for sensing but this, the two companies say, is the first time it can do both — carrying high speed data, while also performing sensing. 

The technology needn’t just be used for traffic: the companies say it could also “support public functions such as helping first responders detect and respond to gun shots and enhancing municipalities’ ability to more quickly and efficiently identify earlier deterioration of bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure.” 

“This test marks an important milestone for technology that could provide a huge leap forward for those building smart cities and those tasked to manage them,” the press release quoted Adam Koeppe, Senior Vice President of Technology Planning and Development with Verizon as saying. “Instead of ripping up tarmac to place road and traffic-sensing technology, cities will be able to simply piggyback Verizon’s existing fiber optic network.”

They’re not the only ones trying to make use of existing fibre without more digging. A British company called OptaSense is developing something called Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) that “enables continuous, real-time measurements along the entire length of a new or existing, single mode fibre optic cable. The fibre optic cable is transformed into a sensor by an Interrogator Unit plugged onto the end of a single unused spare core.” The unit injects a pulse of laser light into the cable which then creates a “virtual microphone” every 10 metres along the cable. The sensor would be able to detect different size vehicles, traffic jams etc. (It wasn’t clear from the Verizon press release whether their solution also required the presence of a similiar unit or some other hardware installation.)

Nose job: smells are smart sensors’ last frontier | Reuters

My piece for Reuters about the technology of smell: Nose job: smells are smart sensors’ last frontier | Reuters. A video version is here.

Nose job: smells are smart sensors’ last frontier


Phones or watches may be smart enough to detect sound, light, motion, touch, direction, acceleration and even the weather, but they can’t smell.

That’s created a technology bottleneck that companies have spent more than a decade trying to fill. Most have failed.

A powerful portable electronic nose, says Redg Snodgrass, a venture capitalist funding hardware start-ups, would open up new horizons for health, food, personal hygiene and even security.

Imagine, he says, being able to analyze what someone has eaten or drunk based on the chemicals they emit; detect disease early via an app; or smell the fear in a potential terrorist. ‘Smell,’ he says, ‘is an important piece’ of the puzzle.

It’s not through lack of trying. Aborted projects and failed companies litter the aroma-sensing landscape. But that’s not stopping newcomers from trying.

Like Tristan Rousselle’s Grenoble-based Aryballe Technologies, which recently showed off a prototype of NeOse, a hand-held device he says will initially detect up to 50 common odors. ‘It’s a risky project. There are simpler things to do in life,’ he says candidly.


The problem, says David Edwards, a chemical engineer at Harvard University, is that unlike light and sound, scent is not energy, but mass. ‘It’s a very different kind of signal,’ he says.

That means each smell requires a different kind of sensor, making devices bulky and limited in what they can do. The aroma of coffee, for example, consists of more than 600 components.

France’s Alpha MOS was first to build electronic noses for limited industrial use, but its foray into developing a smaller model that would do more has run aground. Within a year of unveiling a prototype for a device that would allow smartphones to detect and analyze smells, the website of its U.S.-based arm Boyd Sense has gone dark. Neither company responded to emails requesting comment.

The website of Adamant Technologies, which in 2013 promised a device that would wirelessly connect to smartphones and measure a user’s health from their breath, has also gone quiet. Its founder didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

For now, start-ups focus on narrower goals or on industries that don’t care about portability.

California-based Aromyx, for example, is working with major food companies to help them capture a digital profile for every odor, using its EssenceChip. Wave some food across the device and it captures a digital signature that can be manipulated as if it were a sound or image file.

But, despite its name, this is not being done on silicon, says CEO Chris Hanson. Nor is the device something you could carry or wear. ‘Mobile and wearable are a decade away at least,’ he says.

Partly, the problem is that we still don’t understand well how humans and animals detect and interpret smells. The Nobel prize for understanding the principles of olfaction, or smell, was awarded only 12 years ago.

‘The biology of olfaction is still a frontier of science, very connected to the frontier of neuroscience,’ says Edwards, the Harvard chemical engineer.


That leaves start-ups reaching for lower-hanging fruit.

Snodgrass is funding a start-up called Tzoa, a wearable that measures air quality. He says interest in this from polluted China is particularly strong. Another, Nima, raised $9 million last month to build devices that can test food for proteins and substances, including gluten, peanuts and milk. Its first product will be available shortly, the company says. For now, mobile phones are more likely to deliver smells than detect them. Edwards’ Vapor Communications, for example, in April launched Cyrano, a tub-sized cylinder that users can direct to emit scents from a mobile app – in the same way iTunes or Spotify directs a speaker to emit sounds.

Japanese start-up Scentee is revamping its scent-emitting smartphone module, says co-founder Koki Tsubouchi, shifting focus from sending scent messages to controlling the fragrance of a room.

There may be scepticism – history and cinemas are littered with the residue of failed attempts to introduce smell into our lives going back to the 1930s – but companies sniff a revival.

Dutch group Philips filed a recent patent for a device that would influence, or prime, users’ behavior by stimulating their senses, including through smell. Nike filed something similar, pumping scents through a user’s headphones or glasses to improve performance.

The holy grail, though, remains sensing smells.

Samsung Electronics was recently awarded a patent for an olfactory sensor that could be incorporated into any device, from a smartphone to an electronic tattoo.

One day these devices will be commonplace, says Avery Gilbert, an expert on scent and author of a book on the science behind it, gradually embedding specialized applications into our lives.

‘I don’t think you’re going to solve it all at once,’ he says.