Mar 10 2020

Street Smarts: A Tech-Savvy Atlanta Suburb Serves as a Smart City Testing Ground

The enclosed environment of Peachtree Corners, Ga., gives developers a real-world test bed for a variety of IoT innovations.

Editor's Note: This is the seventh article in "Street Smarts," an ongoing StateTech series that highlights local stories of smart city projects, from development to execution. Check out the first article in the series on Montgomery, Ala.the second on Colorado Springs, Colo., the third article on Racine, Wis., the fourth article on Columbus, Ohiothe fifth article on Chattanooga, Tenn., and the sixth article on Coral Gables, Fla

From its beginning as a rural farming community known as Pinckneyville, Peachtree Corners, Ga., has grown into a tech giant, thanks to the vision of Paul Duke. 

In the 1960s, Duke thought up Peachtree Corners, a planned community with an office component known as Technology Park Atlanta to slow the “brain drain” of Georgia Tech graduates leaving the state. Early residents of this campus of low-rise buildings included General Electric, Scientific Atlanta (now part of Cisco Systems) and Hayes Microcomputer Products. According to Brian Johnson, city manager of Peachtree Corners, the modem and color printer were invented in the technology park.

In the 1970s, residential neighborhoods were created to augment the technology park. Residents of Peachtree Corners voted to officially incorporate in November 2011, with municipal operations commencing in July 2012. 

Technology Park Atlanta

Today, Technology Park Atlanta encompasses 500 acres and houses Fortune 500 companies. Photo courtesy of Peachtree Corners.

Today, the technology park encompasses 500 acres and houses Fortune 500 companies, and Peachtree Corners is home to the regional, national and international headquarters of a number of companies, including Itron, OneLogin, Hampton Inn, Marriott and more. As the technology park continued to grow, so did the residential population. The city is home to just under 50,000 residents while boasting nearly 50,000 jobs. This employment rate is one of the reasons Peachtree Corners is the second-largest municipality in Georgia with no city property tax. Because of this, city leaders have put a lot of effort into ensuring its economic development is as healthy as possible.

“We do a lot of conventional stuff like other cities, but we were looking for unconventional things, and we ultimately decided within the tech ecosystem we could take something we’re uniquely qualified to leverage, and that is being the sole owner of public infrastructure,” Johnson says. “We can enhance that public infrastructure and make it available to private technology companies and let them use it for their research, testing and demonstration.”

Curiosity Lab Supports IoT Experiments as They Scale

The result of these efforts is Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners, a 5G-enabled living laboratory for smart city and Internet of Things testing. Opened in September 2019, the Curiosity Lab consists of a mile and a half autonomous vehicle testing track and demonstration environment plus the technology park, which features both residential and commercial aspects. 

The primary draw of the Curiosity Lab is its advanced vehicle lanes, a state-of-the-art test area for developing and demonstrating autonomous vehicles. The corridor includes a route with a hotel complex, two high schools, hundreds of offices and a townhouse development with people living and working around the lab. 

“We view it as the ‘crawl, walk, run’ phase of technology,” says Brandon Branham, CTO of Peachtree Corners. “They can crawl in the closed environment laboratory to work out some of their initial issues. They may not be quite ready to just drop their technology into downtown Atlanta or Detroit, but they need to test in a living environment where they have the unpredictability of humans but in a semicontrollable fashion. So, we created this arena for that walk phase for companies to come in and graduate to running.”

Georgia Power installed 40 smart LED streetlights along the 1.5-mile stretch of the Curiosity Lab, as well as 20 cameras throughout the property to provide complete video coverage. These lights are part of Georgia Power’s network of nearly 300,000 connected streetlights across the state. 

Axis P3807-PVE smart cameras with the TrafficVision edge analytics platform provide real-time incident detection of the roadway and the autonomous vehicle lanes along the Curiosity Lab corridor. With the use of the cutting-edge processing, the cameras will also connect technology to support and enhance safety and visibility of the lab and its operating partners.

Peachtree Corners

Axis smart cameras with the TrafficVision edge analytics platform provide real-time incident detection of the roads and the autonomous vehicle lanes. Photo courtesy of Peachtree Corners.

The city has also integrated license plate recognition analytics into its smart cameras. These cameras are installed at various places in the city to capture video feeds of things in their field of view and to take a photo of every single license plate that comes into their view, which provides a public safety benefit. 

“If any license plate comes up hot, it automatically sends a message to our police department saying that a certain vehicle traveling in a certain direction at this time came up hot for whatever reason. It could be as simple as no insurance or it could be that there’s been a stolen car or a kidnapping or something else, and our police department can do something with that in real time if it’s severe enough to warrant the movement of resources,” Johnson says.

READ MORE: Find out how LoRa and LoRaWAN help smart cities.

Test Track Provides a Real-World Environment

According to Branham, most of the autonomous vehicle test tracks currently in operation are closed, controlled environments. While these are certainly helpful, they can’t provide the type of real-world challenges that instigate the fine-tuning necessary to make vehicles road ready. This is precisely the reason Peachtree Corners created its test track.

“Unlike the closed courses that are flat and open, we have a lot of control, as they can have 34 interaction points along this mile and a half that an autonomous vehicle or advanced vehicle has to interact with,” Branham says. “It has a 13 percent grade change and sweeping curves. It has a tree canopy and buildings. There are all those effects of a real-world environment, so a lot of people who have come in have found out a lot about what their software can and cannot do when you put it into an environment like this.”

When companies seek to test their solutions, they move quickly to stay ahead of technology advancements and the competition, making it critical to get into a facility in a short period of time. Thanks to the way the living lab is set up, Peachtree Corners is able to accommodate these kinds of quick turnarounds. 

“The one-and-a-half-mile section of the living laboratory is completely owned and operated by the city, so we’re the only government agency that has to say yes or no. So, if we have a company approach us, we can move pretty quickly to get them out and testing,” Branham says.

One result of the test track and living lab is what Johnson says is the first deployment of a driverless shuttle on a public street. Deployed in October 2019, Local Motors’ Olli autonomous shuttle transports residents and workers throughout the test track to a variety of shops, office buildings and other destinations, interacting with human-driving vehicles while also providing yet another point of contact for autonomous vehicles being tested in Peachtree Corners.

Olli shuttle

Local Motors’ Olli autonomous shuttle transports residents and workers throughout the test track to a variety of shops, office buildings and other destinations. Photo courtesy of Peachtree Corners.

Branham says the city has been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to autonomous vehicles by those who live and work in Peachtree Corners.

“The acceptance of autonomy was a big takeaway for us. Our residents are open to change, but when you deploy something this new, you’re always curious to see the reaction. We have had very, very positive feedback for the autonomous shuttle and the scooter operations,” Branham says.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how 5G networks will impact smart cities.

5G Wireless Integrates Companies in the City

When Peachtree Corners began the process of creating the Curiosity Lab, one of the first thing city leaders were told was that they would need a strong 5G wireless environment. This led to a partnership with Sprint, which resulted in one of the first rollouts of permanent 5G in metro Atlanta following the Super Bowl in 2019.

“Peachtree Corners, a suburb of Atlanta, would never have been in the first rollout had it not been for that. So, we got technology earlier and probably more robust than we normally would have gotten,” Johnson says. 

In addition to providing free use of 5G wireless, Sprint also serves as a subject matter expert to help companies working in the testing facility integrate into the system.

Peachtree Corners has remade itself a test bed for smart city technologies of the future — and it’s just getting started.

Photo Courtesy of Peachtree Corners