May 21 2020

Aurora, Ill., Poised to Adopt a Comprehensive Smart City Infrastructure

The city is pursuing a plan that could incorporate smart lighting, surveillance and other technologies into its operations.

Editor's Note: This is the eighth 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., the sixth article on Coral Gables, Flathe seventh on Peachtree Corners, Ga., and the eighth on Cary, N.C.  

In recent years, Aurora, Ill., has made a number of standard tech updates — refreshing the Cisco Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing technology that allows it to push higher bandwidths over long distances, for instance, and transitioning from its current version of Microsoft Office to Office 365.

Under the guidance of Aurora CIO Michael Pegues, the city may soon commit to a more significant undertaking: embarking on its journey as a smart city. Pending the city council’s approval, the city would establish a public-private partnership with vendors providing expertise and amenities, such as sensor installation, potentially touching on elements ranging from parking to public safety.

“We’re trying to create a managed services arrangement to manage the specific scope of the smart infrastructure,” Pegues says. “The public-private partnership would be a new entity and would work as a partner to manage, say, intelligent traffic signals.”

That public-private partnership would lay the groundwork for Aurora, as a smart city, to establish an infrastructure framework that can increase access to digital services for its citizens, broaden the use of its technology investments and drive economic growth and development, city officials say.

Laying the Groundwork for Increased Connectivity

An expanded version of Aurora’s fiber-optic network would ultimately total 645 miles, offering greater broadband capabilities for businesses and residents, including gigabit speeds of up to 100Gbps, Pegues says.

“We’re looking at providing a foundation for current and future smart city applications,” he says. “It helps us enable competition, which improves the availability of services to the community and provides ubiquitous high-speed internet access.”

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a number of cities’ connectivity needs, according to Cory Fleming, senior technical specialist at the International City/County Management Association.

Aurora released its Technology Strategic Plan in 2019 to guide its smart city development. Source: City of Aurora, Ill. 

“There are a lot of communities that don't have the necessary fiber optics,” Fleming says. “Especially for children who are now in new learning environments, it’s important to keep that in mind that we do need to provide those services.”

Nearly half of the households in Aurora with annual incomes below $30,000 don’t have broadband service, according to the Technology Strategic Plan the city released in 2019.

“Expanded connectivity will help to close the connectivity gap with some of our underserved communities,” says Aurora Mayor Richard C. Irvin. “During the pandemic, our children and families are home and doing remote learning. Increased connectivity will provide opportunities to educate more efficiently. In addition, expansion will reach geographical parts of the city that were previously not connected, allowing for additional economic development.”

Providing More for Residents Involves Multipurpose Solutions

Cities deploy technology for multiple purposes instead of focusing on single-purpose solutions, ICMA’s Fleming says.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to use technology in different ways; that’s probably what Aurora is trying to do,” Fleming says. “We don't know what’s going to happen after the COVID-19 crisis. Certain local government budgets are going to take a hit, so the importance of thinking about how you can use the software solutions and apps that are available and get more out of investments you’ve already made is something a lot of governments are going to be looking at.”

Some of Aurora’s physical assets — streetlights, for example — could perform double duty, possibly containing components such as surveillance cameras, Pegues says.

“The city is looking to use its foundational infrastructure to support smart city applications — lights, emergency applications, gunshot detection [via] audio-equipped sensors that offer faster detection for public safety,” he says.

The city’s top smart tech priorities involve public safety, education and economic growth, according to Irvin.

To strengthen safety, Aurora hopes to add a critical intelligence incident center that will filter more than 400 real-time feeds from cameras placed in public areas — the city currently uses some Axis models — into a central location with a video wall.

SMART CITY AURORA ILLINOIS

Aurora's planned River Edge Smart Park will serve as an economic development tool to attract more people in to the city and launch even more technology initiatives. Source: Aurora Technology Strategic Plan. 

A license plate recognition system that would work in tandem with the city’s surveillance cameras is also under consideration, Pegues says.

“I always say a smart city is a safe city,” he says. “Our city sits in four counties; it’s pretty spread out. We’re looking at implementing readers. We’re also looking at interstate entrances and exits and a couple of crime area hotspots where we may have an increase in calls.”

Aurora Launches Smart Meters, Plans for More Innovation

In April of last year, Aurora implemented a new smart water meter system; data is transmitted from meters within homes to smart points located within neighborhoods, and eventually to an analytics portal via a long-range radio system communication network.

The city’s previous data collection method involved water department employees driving by homes to collect information through a device in their cars.

“The typical cycles were monthly; the collection process took about four weeks, and we had multiple billing cycles,” Pegues says. “Now that’s been made obsolete and basic collection for a water bill can be done in about 15 minutes.”

In addition to its smart water system, the city debuted its Smart Aurora Opportunity Gallery in 2019 — a space featuring displays that show how smart city technology could affect education, public safety and other aspects of life in Aurora. The gallery is part of the city’s 605 Innovation District initiative, named after the first three numbers in local zip codes.

Pegues hopes the Innovation District effort, combined with enhanced connectivity, will attract businesses and help drive economic development in the area.

“A startup company with a product that uses some type of 5G can come to test applications if you have the infrastructure, which is really the first step we need as a smart city,” he says. “We have access; we have our own fiber-optic network.”

The city’s fiber-optic network, combined with Aurora’s status as the second largest city in Illinois with key access points for transportation — two train stations and multiple entrances to major highways — makes the municipality well-situated to serve as a regional technology hub, Irvin says.

“We are setting a new course for the future that others are watching and emulating,” he says. “When you fast-forward a decade ahead, the infrastructure of Aurora will look completely different — with technology being the driving force behind it all.”

Center for Neighborhood Technology Hey and Associates, Inc./Wikimedia Commons