Aug 17 2022

Street Smarts: In Florida, St. Petersburg’s Smart Tech Test Bed Assesses Safety

The Gulf Coast city considers how technology might improve residents’ quality of life.

Established in 2016 to foster job growth and economic development, the St. Petersburg Innovation District — a roughly one-square-mile area south of the city’s downtown — is now helping to spearhead the city’s smart technology efforts.

With assistance from organizations located within the district, including two hospitals and the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, officials identified several proof-of-concept tech projects that address key challenges in the area, according to Innovation District Executive Director Alison Barlow.

“Some cities have a designated person for smart city innovation,” Barlow says. “In our community, it really falls to our business district to play that role. A lot of what we wanted to do with these pilots was just figure out if they’re workable in St. Pete.”

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Smart Lighting as a Base for Other Tech Deployments

The first smart tech initiative installed smart streetlights on the USF campus. Outfitted with energy-efficient LEDs, the lights can be dimmed or brightened via a centralized system.

The prep work for the project involved running new fiber to the poles to enable Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity. Barlow suggests cities that are considering a similar implementation look for ways to minimize the amount of fiber that needs to be added, unless they’re planning to perform major infrastructure work.

“To dig up an existing road to lay fiber to get light poles hooked together is just cost-prohibitive, and it’s disruptive,” she says. “My advice has been that if you want to do things that require fiber, are there other tools and techniques, like LTE, that you can use to link light pole to light pole? Can you run fiber to the first pole and then daisy-chain off that?”

Streetlights Support Smart Initiative for Traffic Management

The streetlights’ connectivity capabilities helped facilitate another project that centers on smart intersections. Cameras and sensors installed on light poles in one location are gathering pedestrian, bicycle and automobile-related data that reveals daily traffic patterns, accidents and other elements.

Officials chose the intersection of 3rd Street South and 6th Avenue South for the project for the large volume of pedestrians, bikes and cars that regularly pass through, Barlow says. In addition to having an oddly located crosswalk, some traffic-related issues have occurred at the site.

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“Our county has a particularly high rate of accidents involving cars hitting pedestrians, or cars hitting bicyclists,” she says. “We know about incidents where there’s a police report or a trip to an emergency room. We don’t have great data about near misses.”

The intersection technology could potentially help guide the city’s planning for infrastructure changes. Transportation Manager Cheryl Stacks says it’s an upgrade from the previous method of collecting information, which involved downloading data from a camera that had been mounted at a location for a day or two.

“The software associated with the camera allowed staff to review the data quicker than it was recorded, but it was still labor-intensive and only provided a snapshot in time,” Stacks says. “The smart intersection allows for long-term data collection and an easier means for data review and analysis.”

Some cities have a designated person for smart city innovation. In our community, it really falls to our business district to play that role.”

Alison Barlow Executive Director, St. Petersburg Innovation District

Data Could Assist with Air Quality Management

Sensors mounted on some light poles are also being used to measure environmental conditions, such as carbon dioxide levels and contaminants in the air, Barlow says.

“We were interested in what was happening around the site,” she says. “If the airport was super busy, or if there were a lot of cars because the kids were moving into the university dorms, was any of that correlated to what we were seeing in air quality?”

Varol Kayhan, an associate professor in the School of Information Systems and Management within USF’s Muma College of Business, is analyzing the corresponding data from the smart tech projects with his students.

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When paired with other data, such as the number of parking permits an organization provides in a year, the environmental data may eventually allow the city to determine how traffic from a specific entity impacts the local community, he says.

“We know vehicles contribute to air pollution and produce emissions, and we’re able to capture that through the sensors,” Kayhan says. “If we put the data side by side and see there is some observable impact, the next question is what can we do about that? Can we make a recommendation to organizations like USF St. Pete, for example, to say, ‘To offset that, you need to take these measures, one of which could be you need to plant this many trees,’?”

Construction May Help Expand Prospective Tech Plans

In another environmentally based smart tech initiative called the Guardians of the Gulf program, cameras placed under and above water allow students participating in a Boys & Girls Clubs of America program to view a live feed of activity, transmitted via a Wi-Fi network, in an artificial reef outside the USF College of Marine Science’s educational center.

The program is part of a STEM-based educational effort that touches on environmental resilience, which Barlow says may eventually be utilized elsewhere.

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“The vision is to take what they’ve developed and basically promulgate it through the Boys & Girls Clubs network — let all Boys & Girls Clubs, particularly ones that are in waterfront communities, have this capability to emulate,” she says. “It could be that their waterfront is one of the Great Lakes up in the north of the country, because water issues are water issues.”

The city remains interested in leveraging smart technology in other areas, Stacks says. St. Petersburg is currently considering ways to incorporate smart solutions in the redevelopment of its historic Gas Plant District, an 86-acre area that houses Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays pro baseball team plays. The existing lease agreement with the Rays is set to expire in 2027.

Smart City Plans Eye Resources for Internet of Things

Sustainability and equitable access are priorities in St. Petersburg’s pending plans for the site, according to a published project overview.

“The city plans to issue a new RFP for developers later this year for this site,” Stacks says. “With the redevelopment that’s expected to include considerable investments in new and updated infrastructure, incorporating smart technologies appears to be a synergistic way to help the city meet its goals for the redevelopment.”

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St. Petersburg is also focusing on enhancing its connectivity resources to proactively prepare for any future IoT needs. The city is working with Pinellas County on a project that will install additional fiber within the downtown core.

“That could be leveraged for smart technology projects, including but not limited to downtown advanced traffic management to allow variable message signs directing motorists when special events occur, and also traffic signal priority for transit vehicles,” Stacks says.

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