The convergence of increasing urbanization and ubiquitous connectivity are making it possible for cities to become smart cities. They can take advantage of IoT sensor technology to lay the foundations for a sustainable, prosperous future.

More and more cities are reimagining their core services through the lens of IoT technology to make themselves more livable, workable, and sustainable.

Here are seven examples of the ways sensor technology and IoT are already beginning to improve efficiency and enhance the quality of life in smart cities, and will continue to do so as they are deployed more extensively.

1. Utilities

Water and electricity are critical resources that have to be managed and distributed efficiently.

The water distribution system – from the source to the faucet – can be enhanced with IoT sensors for monitoring. A leak in distribution pipes can be quickly detected with sensors that monitor pressures, flow rates, vibrations, and other key information. Reservoirs or other storage sites can be similarly monitored. Problems are quickly flagged, and in the case of smart systems, the water flow can be restricted or modified even without human intervention. In addition, sensors can monitor water quality and make sure the public is assured of safe and clean water.

The increasing emphasis by municipal and other utilities on smart electric grids is already bringing great benefits to utilities and their customers: more efficient use of energy, moving generation points closer to customers to minimize power loss, and offering a variety of self-monitoring capabilities. Sensors can be deployed throughout the distribution network, at substations or along transmission lines, for instance, for monitoring performance and reliability.

2. Smart buildings and homes

Fostering sustainability and green living means making buildings and homes more efficient, especially since these structures consume a large portion of the electricity used in an urban area.

That’s especially the case with HVAC – heating/ventilating/air conditioning – systems. Monitoring the performance of these systems is key to reducing energy consumption. For example, monitoring individual rooms in homes or offices or floors in buildings and adjusting temperatures based on whether anyone is occupying those spaces at a given time can produce sizable savings. That is true with lighting as well.

Further use of smart meters and extensive use of sensors helps optimize usage, via three possible approaches. Distributed sensing involves placing a sensor on each appliance or other energy-consuming device, which ensures accurate data but can get expensive. With intermediate sensing, smart devices can be installed in a household circuit panel, to gain a reasonably detailed analysis of consumption. Single point sensing is the most basic, simply measuring the electricity entering a particular structure.

Whatever method is used, the data gained from electricity users across a smart city can be invaluable in analyzing the existing and future needs of those users.

3. Occupancy and user experience

Whether it is adjusting lighting or heating in occupied versus unoccupied spaces, or adjusting street lighting based on whether pedestrians are in the area, sensors allow smart systems to determine presence and react accordingly.

This can be achieved through various types of sensors, such as simple passive-infrared sensors that react as someone enters a room or other designated area, to more advanced and sophisticated camera-based methods. Those advanced methods involve blending video camera feeds with artificial intelligence to create a smart video analytics system.

The intelligence built into such a system allows not only occupancy analysis, but allows an automated determination of who is in the area, how they came to be there, whether they left anything behind (security risks) or left a door ajar (intrusion potential), and how many people are in a given building at any one time. That could be invaluable in the case of an emergency evacuation, to be sure everyone is accounted for.

4. Indoor monitoring

Temperature and lighting are the primary focus of indoor monitoring, but adding sensors and an intelligent IoT system enables fine tuning. For example, LED lamps could automatically adjust their intensity as sensors determine the amount of natural light in the space as it changes throughout the day.

In addition, business equipment in buildings and household appliances in residential areas can also be monitored to detect mechanical or performance issues. The equipment and appliances can be organized into IoT network clusters and their data transmitted for monitoring either at data collection hubs or via individual mobile devices.

5. Environmental monitoring

In urban areas, environmental monitoring is vital to ensuring quality of life. Sensors distributed across the urban area can help track environmental status in real time. By closely monitoring air and water quality, as well as factors such as humidity and temperature, agencies can take action to minimize pollution.

The data generated by sensors, and then analyzed, can provide valuable insight into trends and historical data that smart cities can use to craft environmentally beneficial policies. It can help determine relationships between environmental factors and modes of transportation, for instance, and help in balancing often-competing priorities to everyone’s benefit.

6. Intelligent transportation systems

While completely autonomous vehicles and thus the elimination of traffic lights and stop signs are years away, there are many ways smart cities can improve vehicle traffic today. Often the bane of urban living, traffic can be better managed to optimize vehicle flow and avoid jam-ups and delays, boosting the quality of life.

That might include sensors that determine how many cars are approaching an intersection from each direction and a smart system that can adjust each traffic light dynamically to accommodate ever-changing conditions. Or taking the detectors installed beneath the pavement to detect vehicles – common in many cities already – and making them better. They could be enhanced to detect the number of cars and their sizes and types, as well as the speeds of the vehicles, and instantly factor that data into traffic light timing.

And with smart video analytics, a city could automatically count and classify vehicles on roads and intersections to get a more comprehensive picture of urban traffic. Video analysis can also instantly detect if a driver has entered a highway going the wrong direction, a particularly dangerous and increasingly frequent occurrence in urban areas.

7. Public safety

This is an area where much is already being done to improve law enforcement practices and to make police, firefighters, and other emergency personnel safer. Several large cities use gunshot-sensing technology that enable police to determine with accuracy the location where a weapon was fired. Body cameras for police officers are common.

More can be done. Greater use of sensor-equipped body armor for police can send alerts if the armor is struck or pierced, and bio-sensors on the officers themselves can detect heart rate, blood pressure, body position, and other indicators of stressful or dangerous situations.

Using smart video analytics, facial detection can aid police in searching for criminal or terrorist suspects or in missing person investigations. License plate recognition systems can “see” plates and match them with whitelists or blacklists. Trespass or intrusion security alerts can be triggered through more extensive surveillance. Objects – even tiny ones – can be detected if they are in places where they don’t belong. These are just a few examples of the many public safety enhancements that sensors and IoT can enable.

And with the right intelligent platform, any city can take advantage of IoT and sensor technology to improve the efficiency of their municipal operations, smooth their traffic flows, and make life better for residents and visitors alike.