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Use what you’ve got: Tapping fibre networks to ‘listen’ to the city

UK company Fotech is looking to expand its Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) technology to smart cities, extracting new value from existing fibre networks.


Cities want to understand more about what’s happening in the urban environment so they can manage operations more efficiently, save costs and make better-informed decisions. To do this, they often need to add new technology such as sensors and other equipment, which can be expensive and risks cluttering the landscape. Further, installation can create disruption - especially if roads need to be ripped up.


Soon, cities could use common technology that’s already under the ground to carry out a multitude of their sensing needs and more – fibre cabling.


Fotech, which has a decade-long history in using ‘distributed acoustic sensing’ (DAS) to monitor linear assets such as pipelines, perimeters, power cables and railway lines, is now turning its technology to a potentially much wider market in smart cities.


Fotech connects a small box to fibre cables, then pulses light down the fibre with a laser. Analysis of the reflections of light that come back up the cable effectively turns the fibre into a vibrational sensor which can be used to track everything from footfall and traffic density to high-speed transit, seismic activity and security threats.


High-fibre cities


Stuart Large, product line director, Fotech, told SmartCitiesWorld: “We’re looking to connect to all the fibre that’s installed and start detecting events that are going on in the city.”


Indeed, Fotech believes smart cities could become the company’s biggest market in future.


“There might be a few million kilometres of pipelines in the world; there are many, many times that amount of fibre in cities,” Large said. And this is growing fast.


The global fibre optics market is projected to reach $6.9 billion by 2024 from $4.3 billion in 2019.


According to Markets and Markets, the global fibre optics market is projected to reach $6.9 billion by 2024 from $4.3 billion in 2019, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10 per cent. Driven by growing demand for internet access and fibre to the premises/cabinet (FTTP/FTTC) as well as the roll-out of 5G, these figures highlight the increasing ubiquity of fibre cabling.


Some of the services Fotech envisions could be implemented almost immediately, while others are a longer-term play.


Similar to Fotech’s traditional business, DAS technology could detect risks to critical services such as water or gas pipelines or communications and power cables from excavation work, for instance, and alert operators. Furthermore, should services be disrupted, DAS could locate the specific site of the fault much faster, saving time and cost and reducing the human risk of manual investigations.


Down the line


With the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) such as machine learning to understand the different vibration signatures of various events, more novel applications of DAS technology could include measuring traffic flow and congestion, detecting potholes, mapping footfall and crowd movement, tracking mass transit and monitoring fixed infrastructure.


While cities can get this information today, DAS can be more precise while also delivering more bang for the municipal buck using existing technology, Large said.


For example, cameras, inductive loops and radar technology can detect passing cars but require the installation of additional kit and only monitor a limited stretch of road. Fibre typically runs much further, providing additional contextual information on where a traffic jam starts and ends, as well as the situation at a fixed location. DAS is also more accurate and timely than ‘floating point’ data which uses cell phone signals, according to Large.


DAS and digital twins


DAS benefits could go further still, though, helping cities not only react but also become more predictive.

Large said: “There are even longer-term analytics that could be delivered by feeding this data into digital twins and combining it with data from other sources, such as air pollution sensors, acoustic point sensors and information from cameras, to highlight bigger correlations.”


There are even longer-term analytics that could be delivered by feeding this data into digital twins and combining it with data from other sources.


More holistic, actionable insights could include patterns related to the time of day when congestion typically occurs; times, places or weather trends mapping to a high frequency of accidents; and visualising how city infrastructure reacts to busy events such as sports tournaments or a music concert. Further, cities could model the impact of closing a road or building new housing in a particular area.


Large noted, too, that the technology could even help to monitor geotechnical activity in a city by detecting anomalous seismic events and micro-seismic activity.


“You can start to really predict how the city might ‘react’,” he said.


Fotech is already working with the City of Calgary in Canada on a proof of concept using fibre for DAS. It expects to implement its solutions with two other European organisations shortly and is actively seeking deployment partners as well as engaging with more cities directly.


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