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The role of drones in a smart city

A Crown Castle-backed startup has partnered with a drone provider to address the smart city opportunity

by Martha DeGrasse

Drones are helping communities with everything from disaster recovery to water resource management, and now airborne robots are set to help cities rebuild aging infrastructure. Drones can inspect roads, bridges and buildings much more efficiently than humans can. 


"Drones are an extremely beneficial technology that allows data to be captured ... to make those assessments," said Jeff DeCoux, founder and CEO of drone service provider Hangar. Hangar is working with state governments in Texas, New York and Massachusetts, as well as several municipalities around the country. 


Unmanned aerial vehicles can quickly record hundreds of measurements and images, but that's not enough. Data needs to be aggregated and analyzed, and that requires powerful servers and software.


"One of the first issues we kept on experiencing when we went out to fly all those missions is you have a lot of data being collected in disparate areas and getting that back into the cloud was a challenge," said DeCoux. "If you have 40 to 100 gigabytes of data, getting that back into the cloud is a difficult thing when most pipes are designed to push data down versus pull it back up."


DeCoux knew Hangar needed edge computing resources, and he found a solution close to home. Like Hangar, Vapor IO is an Austin startup with ties to the wireless industry. Vapor IO makes modular mini-data centers that are designed to sit at the base of a cell tower.


Crown Castle led Vapor's second round of financing and partnered with the company on its first commercial deployment in Chicago. Now Hangar's drones and software are deployed on Vapor's infrastructure in Chicago, and the companies plan to deploy in Austin and one other city this year. They plan to deploy at 27 sites across the three cities.


Vapor and Hangar describe their solution as the "kinetic edge," and compare the distributed data centers to the electric grid. Like electricity, data processing will need to be delivered from multiple locations in order to realize its potential. DeCoux said this has become clear to his drone operators as they work to combine real-time data capture with navigation that is even more precise than GPS.


"The main issue they kept on facing was how do we find the real estate that has the power and the connectivity to tie all these things together, and that's when we started exploring the relationship with Vapor and what they had established with Crown," said DeCoux.


Vapor IO founder and CEO Cole Crawford started his company to bring the shared tenant infrastructure model from the top of the tower to the base by providing neutral host data centers. He sees drones connected to commercial cellular networks as a perfect use case for his business model. 


"A drone authorized by a municipality will require some amount of municipality certification to actually fly across public land and city centers, etc. and that means that there's going to be a need for telemetry, both drone to drone as well as infrastructure to drone and drone to infrastructure," Crawford explained. "That can't happen in one physical location. ... In a big Tier 1 city where you've got these big data centers, a thousand drones can't all come back. ... There need to be edge capabilities because even as fast as the speed of light is, it's not fast enough to solve for where a lot of the first party services in the form of telco providers, etc., get terminated today."


Telco providers know they need to distribute their compute capabilities in order to build and support next-generation 5G networks. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile US have all joined a consortium called CORD, formed to re-architect telco central offices as data centers. 


It will be several years before edge computing capabilities are ready to support widespread use of autonomous drones, and it may be even longer before city governments are ready to approve the technology. Hangar and Vapor think they are taking an important first step by working with municipalities and federal officials. 


"A drone at the edge - that's a ways off because additional things have to be rolled out," said DeCoux. "But what's exciting is you can actually demonstrate that today and show legislators and the FAA and other government agencies how that can be embraced in a much larger scale."





Smart Cities A-List

The Smart Cities A-List from Compass Intelligence ranks companies that provide products and services related to urban design and technology, such as networked systems, intelligent infrastructure, enhanced governance, and an overall capacity to continually improve citizens' experiences.  







“From Smart Homes to Smart Nations, recent technological advancements and ambitious partnerships are marking seemingly far-off futuristic urban innovations a reality, dramatically changing how citizens, companies, and governments interact. These digital communities and cities are looking for an improved user experience—instant access to services, better routing of traffic, improved safety through real-time information, and, more generally, the use of technology to improve daily life and enhance urban sustainability in every sense of the word,” says Jarrod Russell, Senior Analyst. “By 2020, the Global Smart Cities Market will climb to $1.4 trillion, with the industry rapidly evolving to integrate technology into infrastructure, mobility, surveillance and security, lighting and access control, and other community-oriented areas.”

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