The Incredible Power of Smart Sensors

An Australian company is perfecting a sensor that can ‘see’.





Image credit: Sensor Journal, MPDI Basel.

Note: This is not an image of the sensor development referred to in the article.

It will have the functionality of a camera, but in places where there is no light source. It’s being developed as part of a terrifically interesting project to enable dynamic 3D imaging and characterisation of assets used in underground mines, tunnels, bore-holes, dams the potential use-cases are many.

I’ll get more details – and hopefully be able to write about them – as the project unfolds. Meantime, I saw another future use for them: especially if they follow the same cost-curve as other sensors & actuators i.e. if they, too, become ridiculously cheap.

It’s this ‘future use’ that serves as a good, concrete example of the IoT revolution. Everyday things can happen now a lot quicker and cheaper than before the Internet was invented. The promise of IoT is that in a relatively short time, these things will get exponentially easier still. (However, this article is speculative – it describes a “what-if”).

One important detail for now: this ‘camera-sensor’ can’t detect individual faces. It’s non-personal.

Something that local governments in Australia – and around the world –want to track and optimize is the use of parks, recreation & sports facilities. As cities grow denser and denser, the pressure on these green spaces increases exponentially.

First, land value goes up. Developers are dying to get their hands on some of the space. People need somewhere to live –somewhere they don’t have to travel hours to get to work. Governments have an ever-harder time justifying why they hold onto green spaces.

(A note: this factor is not currently pressing in Australia, though more so in some other Asian countries)


Second, the growing population wants somewhere to play sports – competitive, such as soccer, cricket, footie – or less so, like Frisbee. Competitive sports are ‘active’ uses of parks.

Third, people also want somewhere to just walk in a natural setting. This is a ‘passive’ use of parks.

The ‘passive’ use may compete with the ‘active’ – it’s less attractive to take a walk around a park when there’s a chance of getting socked in the head by a cricket ball. The parks’ curators get lobbied by the passive users to curtail the sports activities; and the Mums and Dads who live near the park naturally lobby for planned sports close to home.

One more factor – these parks cost money to maintain.

With all that, councils and curators of these parks and facilities need to know how much they are being used; by whom; for what. As things stand, there is no off-the-shelf, automated way to measure this. Options that can be set up include:

  • Video surveillance. The price of this is coming down dramatically; as is the price of transmitting data through the necessary network. However, it is intensely intrusive. Not many people would believe that the information obtained could be depersonalize
  • Tracking the facilities’ usage via mobile phone networks. This is surprisingly accurate, at least where the carrier has a minimum 25 – 30% share of the market. However, the phone company needs to develop models and algorithms to factor in the fact that x% leave their phones at home; that they don’t have the whole market (there are 3, 4 or 20 other carriers); and to depersonalize the information.

I’m speculating that if we fast-forward, these ‘camera’ capabilities, combined with existing capabilities such as PIR (Passive Infra-Red) could serve the council, and the people – rapidly & non-intrusively reporting on how many people are using the facility; when; whether actively or passively – and maybe a whole lot more.

It would allow for transport to be scheduled to and from sports facilities; it would enable a better balance between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ use of our wonderful green areas. It would be an example of everyday things happening in a quicker, cheaper, & altogether better way than before the Internet of Things was invented.

About the author

Steve Mackay is founder of Creator Tech and previous to that had an extensive career in Cisco Systems, based in Beijing then Hong Kong. Steve has spent the last 3 years learning about IoT and Smart Cities from Geof Heydon and others. He was the youngest Drapers Scholar at William and Mary College, the 2nd oldest University in USA; and also studied Town Planning with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

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