How smart sensors are boosting Kelowna’s public safety
Kelowna, British Columbia is one of western Canada’s fastest growing cities. A city of 170,000 in the heart of the Okanagan Valley, Kelowna’s nearby agriculture, winery and burgeoning technology industries are steadily attracting new residents from Alberta and the lower mainland of B.C.
An element of rapid growth is increased densification in car ownership and traffic. Plus, Kelowna has the highest ownership of utility vehicles per capita in the entire country. This combination of factors can lead to increased traffic congestion and, more seriously, collisions.
When Rogers announced the Vancouver rollout of 5G in January of 2020, Kelowna was intrigued by the prospect of partnering with Rogers on a smart city pilot to address their growing public safety needs.
“We have a vision statement that talks about leveraging technology to really impact individuals. This can’t be technology for technology’s sake––we need to focus on the issues at hand and on what people need,” said Andreas Boehm, Intelligent Cities Manager, City of Kelowna. “So, in thinking about transportation and urbanization, and more people navigating a complex urban environment, we wondered how we can use technology to help with that.”
“The City of Kelowna came to us with a problem of wanting to make the downtown core safer for drivers and pedestrians,” said Neel Dayal, Senior Director, Innovation and Partnerships, Rogers Canada. “We saw this as a great opportunity to tackle the problem using the potential of 5G networks, as well as the technology that we’d been testing at the University of British Columbia (UBC).”
Since 2019 Rogers and UBC have had a strategic partnership to advance 5G research in Canada.
A real-time solution developed in record time
In partnership with Microsoft, Rogers and UBC hosted a virtual hackathon to find a solution to Kelowna’s traffic safety issues using 5G and LiDAR sensors sourced from BlueCity, a Montreal-based company. LiDAR sensors create a 3D model of what’s happening in real time using light in a way that’s similar to how radar uses radio waves and sonar uses sonar waves.
In 48 hours, a winning team came up with an actionable solution.
“The students took LiDAR data and built out a collision detection algorithm, so they could actually identify if an accident took place. They then built an application that would send a notification with key data points to the fire services dispatch, so a fire truck could be deployed to the place where there was a collision,” Dayal said.
But that was just the beginning. As Dayal notes, this initial solution was “not the thing––it’s the thing that starts the thing.” What it inspired was a subsequent further algorithm that can identify near misses in an intersection. This was implemented in four of Kelowna’s busiest intersections.
“This allows us to see which part of an intersection is dangerous and allows us to consider what kinds of traffic calming or other techniques we can use to reduce the dangers of a particular intersection. Maybe this means making a light longer or putting up a barrier,” Dayal said.
Rick Sellers, the President of Rogers in British Columbia, says that investing in a city like Kelowna for this project is beneficial on multiple levels.
“If our technology, our relationships and our partnerships can save just one life, then it’s paid for itself,” he said. “We’re in BC because we care, so whatever we can do to help enable safety, we’ll do.”
One of the biggest benefits of LiDAR is the high quality of data that it transmits.
“Cameras tend to be fair weather devices that don’t generally work as well at night or in poor weather. LiDAR doesn’t have that issue,” said Dr. David Michaelson, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UBC. “You can do the conflict analysis and see near misses and build a statistical picture of what’s happening and why, and you can make critical changes before it becomes a high crash intersection.” Plus, with LiDAR, privacy is built-in because it doesn’t record colour information. Instead it only captures the 3D distance data to generate an anonymized picture.
New opportunities to benefit from 5G
Even though the project is currently running on LTE speeds, Boehm sees how the pilot has opened up new potential for ways the city to take advantage of Rogers 5G network. One example was testing the technology during a time when non-essential businesses had closed due to COVID-19 and see how social distancing was being observed in the downtown core.
“Using an algorithm that BlueCity developed, you could see insights such as one group of pedestrians meeting up with another group to become a large group who weren’t social distancing. That’s helpful information. It makes us think about whether we need more by-law officers out at certain times, or maybe we need to put up signage to remind people to observe social distancing in certain areas,” he said. “Our traffic pilot has really made us think that if we want to expand upon this, there are many ways we could do that.”
Dayal agrees, seeing the potential for 5G to benefit a city like Kelowna in multiple ways. From helping prepare emergency responses, to optimizing traffic for transit vehicles to encourage ridership, to helping visually impaired citizens navigate neighbourhoods, to wildfire prevention, the impact of 5G can be both practical and positive.
“5G takes data collection capabilities to a place that’s limitless. The ability to exponentially grow the data collection capability allows us to make better decisions about everything we do. There’s nothing that can’t benefit from 5G,” Dayal said. “At Rogers, we’re the enablers. We’re about enabling an ecosystem and finding the right partners to help solve problems with our customers.”