Nextgov checked back in with the city that houses the innovative Curiosity Lab.
It’s not just streaming movie services or intelligent military drones that will benefit as 5G technology continues to roll out around the country and the world. One of the areas that has the potential to positively impact a lot of people is using the technology in so-called smart cities to improve the quality of life of the people who live there. And while many large cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago are working on some impressive pilot programs in that area, you likely won't find more concentrated smart city innovation than in a little place called Peachtree Corners, Georgia.
Situated alongside the Chattahoochee River at the southwest corner of Gwinnett County in the metro area of Atlanta , Peachtree Corners is home to more than 40,000 residents. It looks like a really nice place to live, but its biggest claim to fame is the fact that the city founded the Curiosity Lab, a huge facility designed to help industry test new technology. The city doesn’t charge companies to use the Curiosity Lab, which includes a 1.5 mile autonomous vehicle test track. And when it comes time for smart city tech to leave the lab, it’s being deployed out in the city to see how it performs in a real world environment.
NextGov last checked in on Peachtree Corners back in September of 2020. New technologies like 5G were not yet widely available, yet the city was still deploying some impressive experimental programs, like driverless busses, AI-controlled traffic lights and autonomous personal scooters, to help shuttle people around town. With advanced technology now becoming more increasingly common, we figured it was a good time to check in on what was happening in Peachtree. And it turns out, the town is buzzing with new activity.
One of the biggest projects going on right now, which may become a model for other cities that want to connect millions of IoT and other devices to a central hub or command center, is the installation of a communications system that will support true edge networking. The project in Peachtree Corners is being managed by ACiiST, an Israeli company that specializes in edge networking projects for smart cities.
“An edge network is a practical connectivity platform for end devices such as cameras, sensors, streaming signs, V2I antennas and any other standard devices that use ethernet to communicate to servers or other devices,” said ACiiST Co-Founder and CEO Sagi Gurfinkel. “ACiiST provides such networks with high performance, low latency, multi-tenant capabilities and many more features without requiring a city to dig a trench to install new cable and junction boxes, which greatly reduces costs while eliminating the pain related to these types of platform installations.”
In Peachtree Corners, the edge network is being installed on existing streetlight poles. It’s starting off small, just covering the half mile or so of roads around the Curiosity Lab itself. The project is using fiber lines for backup, at least in the initial phases, in order to provide redundancy for the system. Once proven, the edge network can be expanded throughout the city to connect even more smart devices back to the central hub. And Gurfinkel believes it can also serve as a perfect test case for other cities looking to invest in edge networking without having to dig miles of new fiber optic cable trenches.
“ACiiST’s solution creates an infrastructure for the wireless solutions from Wi-Fi to 5G and V2X antennas. Those antennas and access points require a reliable connection for the optimal performance of delivering the last few feet of connectivity,” Gurfinkel said. “ACiiST delivers the connection of those cells to each other and to their core network using high throughput and ultralow latency on top of ultrahigh reliability.”
But the ACiiST edge network is only the latest in a long line of innovative smart city projects. Brandon Branham is the assistant city manager and chief technology officer for Peachtree Corners, having worked in the town since its founding in 2012. Most city managers don’t also serve as CTOs, so our first question was about how he and the city go about balancing the traditional needs of city residents (things like trash pickup, crime prevention, access to good jobs, healthcare, etc.) with all of their smart city initiatives. After all, the city is a real place, not just a technology lab.
“That is a very important question, and what most don’t realize is that the two concepts of service delivery and smart city can, and should, be tied together,” Branham said. “We can use the technologies that are being tested and deployed through our smart city efforts to better serve our residents. One example is crime prevention. We were able to validate a license plate reader product that we have now scaled across our city, and it has helped recover more than $3 million in stolen property, and has helped detectives solve multiple cases by using the technology.”
The key, according to Branham, is to always keep the residents in mind. While many technologies might get tested in Peachtree Corners, only those that benefit the people who live there will get deployed outside of the Curiosity Lab’s grounds.
“Everything has to start with the residents at the forefront of the process. Being able to deploy technologies that drive benefits for our residents and businesses, and not just deploying technology for technology sake, is always top of mind for us,” Branham explained. “Curiosity Lab allows us to have a front row seat to see those technologies early on, and give feedback to companies. With some of these technologies, we are just a great place to allow them to develop their work. We may not end up being a customer, but it still allows for amazing innovation to take place.”
A good example of that concept is with the autonomous scooter program that we covered back in 2020. Driverless scooters are no longer zipping around Peachtree Corner streets, but Branham says the program was a huge success for the company Tortoise, which makes the scooter technology, and also for the city.
“It was a success for us because we really got to show companies around the world how our living laboratory can play an integral role in the development of technology that interacts with the public, and we have had several companies test at Curiosity Lab because of that deployment,” Branham said. “For Tortoise, it was a success because they were able to learn through the deployment what worked and what didn’t, make changes based on real world applications, and then sign a deal with Spin. However, the industry continued to change and Tortoise, because of what they learned through their testing here, continued to adapt their technology and are now deploying tele-operated mobile stores across multiple cities and venues.”
And of course, 5G is driving the next wave of technology deployments at Peachtree Corners. According to Branham, the increase in bandwidth and reliability is opening up a lot of new possibilities for smart cities.
“We are really starting to see an increase in devices that utilize 5G come onboard, which has been a huge help in allowing us to really take advantage of its capabilities. We have been able to put devices in places that require high bandwidth at reduced rates, because we no longer need to pull fiber to them, such as a new smart parking application we are working on with Bosch and T-Mobile,” Branham said. “We had 17 areas that we needed to cover with video for the application, but running fiber to those locations would have cost the city tens of thousands of dollars. We needed high speeds to do the machine learning processing on the cameras, and we are now able to do this over the 5G network. We have also deployed roadside units over the 5G network to bring additional safety to pedestrians on our trail systems.”
As 5G technology matures and more devices begin to use it, Branham says that Peachtree Corners will continue to innovate. They have lots of smart city projects in the works, with many of them potentially being the first footprint and testbed for nationwide rollouts. These include several green initiatives designed to help the environment and to fight climate change.
“We are working on several new and exciting initiatives with companies across the world. One is the creation of a multi-modal mobility hub, which will serve as a new testing site for sustainable alternatives for the emerging electric vehicle infrastructure space,” Branham explained. “We are looking to use hydrogen for the energy generation of electric vehicle charging stations, as well as solar, and incorporating expiring batteries from electric vehicles as battery storage devices. As we continue to see the adoption of electric vehicles, the infrastructure to support them is going to be an important part of the ecosystem, and we have to consider alternative resources to manage the demand on the power grid.”
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys