Dec 16 2021

Street Smarts: Ruston, La., Folds Smart Tech into Upgrade Plans

The city will launch a tech test bed with Louisiana Tech University to field new ideas.

Ruston, La., is undertaking a number of infrastructure updates that will offer alternatives to driving, reduce traffic congestion and repair damage caused by a severe tornado that ripped through the town in 2019.

The city and Louisiana Tech University also plan to introduce an economic development-driven element in the coming months: the Smart Cities Innovation Testbed, a framework that will essentially function as a real-time research lab.

Housed at the university’s Enterprise Campus, the test bed will encompass a densely developed 30- to 40-acre area between LTU’s main campus and downtown Ruston, according to Dave N. Norris, chief research and innovation officer at LTU.

“Faculty and students who are doing projects can use that smart city infrastructure,” Norris says. “A company related to the Internet of Things space — development of software, hardware, devices, sensors — can come here and use the test bed as an asset to develop their products and services.”

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Smart City Grid Can Support Comprehensive Tech Needs

Plentiful network access points will help drive the cybersecurity- and utilities-based research that university members and private entities conduct using the test bed, Norris says.

“I imagine a lot would be done remotely,” he says. “Maybe you go out and plug something into the network, then leave it there for three weeks, two days, four hours, six months, and you’re conducting the experiment from your office. When you’re done, you go back and pull it off the network.”

As the city is partnering with the university to offer the test bed, Ruston stands to benefit from the findings.

“The city also, in some ways, is a customer,” Norris says, “because we hope what gets developed and deployed through that smart city infrastructure includes things the city can incorporate into its public works infrastructure.”

The Smart Cities Innovation Testbed’s formation is part of Ruston’s Monroe Street Corridor Project, structural work that’s being partially funded by a Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) $17.2 million federal grant obtained from the Department of Transportation in 2019.

The project’s scope ranges from adding paths for pedestrians and bicyclists to expanding the city’s high-speed fiber-optic network and relocating its existing components underground.

Ruston Public Works Utilities Manager Andrew Halbrook says that will provide an increased level of protection for the city — which, since facing a tornado in 2019, has also experienced effects from a hurricane and significant snowstorm.

“While, knock on wood, we hope we don’t have any other major disasters, I don’t think we’ll be that lucky,” Halbrook says. “To be as resilient as possible with wind damage events will greatly affect utilities. The more we can place underground, the less likely we are to have any negative interactions. Customers can expect more reliable service and connectivity.”

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City Eyes a Number of Smart Tech Items for the Future

Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker estimates that the revitalization project’s five phases could take up to two years to complete. Various smart technology elements that the city could incorporate are still being determined.

Ruston residents may, for instance, eventually be able to locate available downtown parking spaces using an app or receive messages on their devices to alert them to an upcoming road closure, Halbrook says. This could be accomplished with the help of photocell sensors that brighten and dim LED streetlights and can also transmit information.

Ruston’s Monroe Street Corridor Project is a core part of its smart city plans. Source: City of Ruston, La.

The city also hopes to implement an autonomous shuttle, which, according to Halbrook, would be geofenced to operate on a dedicated path in its own lane, and would possibly run on 4G connectivity.

The vehicle could transport residents between downtown, the university’s campus and its athletics center, replacing a more traditional shuttle that Walker says currently offers rides from downtown Ruston to the university’s stadium when there is a football game.

“Once we get the autonomous lanes and vehicles in place, that will be something that runs 24/7, or on a regular schedule every day,” he says.

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Implementations Will Build on the City’s Previous Advancements

An automated shuttle option wouldn’t be Ruston’s first foray into service-based technology. Smart solutions are currently being used in several operational areas within the city.

After area schools switched to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ruston expanded the free Wi-Fi capabilities, powered by Cisco routers mounted on top of light poles, that were available at some of its public parks and other facilities.

“Families could park in the parking lot and have access to free Wi-Fi so their kids could do their homework and not get behind,” Walker says. “It was used quite a bit.”

About eight years ago, the city added an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system to the electrical utility — functionality that automatically transmits usage data, instead of requiring an employee to physically collect it. Walker says Ruston is currently almost finished installing an AMI water system.

“It’s much more reliable,” he says. “We can turn the electricity on and off more quickly and easily if someone moves in the town. It also allows us to monitor usage and identify where we’ve got leaks within the system at a particular house or business much more quickly than we can with just a manual read.”

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Quality of Life Improvements Produce a Smart City Foundation

Walker attributes some of the prep work that’s enabled Ruston’s tech implementations to his predecessors. A portion of the city-owned fiber backbone used to deliver broadband to businesses, for instance, has been in place for roughly a dozen years, he says.

However, determining which additional smart technology tools could help improve residents’ quality of life in the 23,000-person city has been a focus since Walker came into office seven years ago.

“We feel like we’re on the cutting edge of this for a city our size,” he says. “It’s really exciting to see what we’ve been able to do, and it’s exciting for our citizens because these projects help us save money in the long run, which keeps our taxes down — all because of the smart technology we’re using.”

Lindsay Attaway/Getty Images

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