Urban OS sensor system could soon be running entire cities

A new system of widely distributed sensors could soon be responsible for running entire cities.

Dubbed Urban OS, the system relies on the devices placed in the urban environment to provide data and analyse events in order to keep buildings, traffic and services running smoothly.

Living PlanIT, the company behind Urban OS, claims its technology will make cities more efficient and environmentally sensitive.

The sensors monitor everything from large-scale traffic flows to the temperature of an individual room. The Urban OS then manages communication between sensors without any human input.

John Stenlake, chief technology officer at Living PlanIT, said: ‘We’re a technology company producing a software platform that enables an ecosystem to deliver better results, such as more sustainable buildings and infrastructure.

‘One example scenario of how our system could benefit a city is its ability to provide detailed information to a fire crew, which will then be able to deal with an incident much more effectively when it gets there.

‘The system will top up the water mains so that there is sufficient pressure; control traffic management systems in order to keep other traffic out of the way; and unlock doors and windows.

‘By joining up a few simple things like this, you can literally save minutes, which can ultimately save lives.’

Stenlake explained that the system has been designed so that there is more than one level of equipment that can take over in case of a failure.

High sensor densities mean that the system is never reliant on a single sensor or sensor type. He said that the system can also display evacuation messages on smart walls, LED clusters and input panel screens.

The underlying technology for the Urban OS has been developed by McLaren Electronic Systems, which has also created an extensive set of application services that will run Urban OS. These applications have been dubbed ‘PlaceApps’ and they are the urban-environment equivalent of apps on a smartphone.

Steve Lewis, Living PlanIT’s chief executive officer, told the BBC that, eventually, applications on smartphones could hook into the Urban OS to remotely control household appliances and energy systems.

Living PlanIT intends to implement its initial operating system in Paredes, a municipality close to Porto, Portugal. The total cost of this project is expected to be between €8bn and €10bn (£7bn and £8.6bn).

Stenlake said: ‘[Lewis] saw an opportunity to develop the Living PlanIT idea and was looking for a place to build this prototype/R&D facility in city form. It was a large area of high-quality land where both local and national governments were looking to attract inward investment.

‘Also, there is a labour pool that consists of some very high-quality graduates who have studied technology and science subjects. It was the perfect storm of provisioning and opportunity,’ he explained.

There are also projects in Greenwich and Wembley in the pipeline, and discussions are going on in Silicon Valley, Singapore and the Middle East.

Living PlanIT, the Portuguese smart city initiative, was selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers of 2012.

Stenlake said: ‘We’ve been completely knocked out by the reception we’ve had with… analysts and commentators. We’re very pleased the World Economic Forum has recognised the value of what we’re doing.’