“IoT is probably the biggest game-changer we are experiencing," says Ashish Mathur, managing director of Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Co. Ltd (JUSCO), which provides utility services such as water, power and waste management in the city. JUSCO is a one-of-its-kind utility company in the country—carved out of Tata Steel from its Town Services Division in 2004—that provides the services as an integrated entity; elsewhere, different companies provide different utility services.
Such an integrated structure is an advantage in terms of better work coordination for multiple services, but Mathur insists that it should not detract from the “pioneering initiatives" JUSCO has undertaken in using technology to improve the people’s quality of life. “Our journey started almost 10 years back when JUSCO set up the first call centre, called JUSCO Sahyog Kendra, in the city to reach out to customers and address their issues with any of our services," he says. The company kept using different technologies as they came along the way. “For instance, we were the first to start combined billing for all kinds of utility services and among the first to introduce e-billing, e-payments, etc," he adds.
The company is now working on multiple IoT projects with Tata Communications Ltd, which has been rolling out specialized communication networks called LoRaWANs (Low Power Wide Area Networks or LPWANs; the specifications for these networks are standardized by a non-profit association of telecom firms from around the world called the LoRa Alliance. The idea behind a LoRa network is to provide a broad mechanism for devices (such as battery-powered sensors) to send relatively smaller amounts of data over larger distances while maintaining battery life for many years.
“Smart cities can benefit from the capabilities of LoRaWANs, though we as a company work with multiple networks and are network-agnostic," says Anthony Bartolo, chief product officer for collaboration, mobility and IoT at Tata Communications. The company’s LoRa network in India currently covers over 140 million people and it is working with “around two dozen" start-ups and other ecosystem providers to develop various smart city applications.
‘Smart’ in action
Jamshedpur is one of the first to use Tata Communications’ LoRa network for smart city services such as smart metering and lighting. Besides doing Proofs of Concept (PoCs) for smart streetlighting—in which lights can automatically adjust their brightness based on factors such as the available natural light or density of traffic—Mathur says that JUSCO wanted to “take IoT to the next level".
For this, it is working on a number of PoCs that use sensors and generate alerts based on real-time data captured from them. This enables faster decision-making and proactive actions. The projects include storm and floodwater monitoring, intrusion prevention (to protect valuable equipment), waste management, water quality control and predictive asset management.
For instance, JUSCO is installing sensors under the manholes in the city so that the water level can be monitored and preventive action taken before water actually gushes out of the sewers onto city streets. The monitoring is done from a centralized command and control (C&C) centre that is manned jointly by JUSCO and Tata Communications personnel.
Mathur claims that Jamshedpur is probably the only city in the country where one million people drink water directly from the tap and do not need any kind of purification system on their premises. Before it embarked on IoT, the company would collect water samples from various parts of the city and take them to a certifying lab.
After the quality testing was done at the lab, JUSCO would “accordingly adjust the back-end supply parameters" to ensure that the quality continues to be at the recommended levels. “Now all that process is tech-driven, in which sensor-fitted devices are taken to various places, dipped into the water there and a signal is generated based on the quality of water. This signal is received at our C&C centre and the concerned people are alerted through SMS (short messaging service) about the changes they need to make in the supply system," he explained. The result is quicker redress of water-quality issues.
In another project, JUSCO is monitoring a number of parameters for the hundreds of electricity transformers it has deployed across the city. “The sensors installed on our big transformers constantly monitor what is happening inside them and they send that data to the C&C centre, which helps us to be far more proactive in our approach to find solutions to problems or even pre-empt them. This is quite unlike waiting for something to happen and then reacting to correct it," says Mathur.
So sensors deployed for various utility services do the sensing at predefined intervals (or sometimes in real time), and send the data on the LoRa network to the C&C centre, where it is looked at by a designated set of people. “Should there be an aberration from the normal parameters, it would give an alarm and based on the alarm, the person monitoring that data would immediately alert the respective department or the teams responsible for the function pertaining to the data," explains Mathur. All the data resides on a cloud computing facility operated by Tata Communications. Mathur adds that once there is a critical mass of the data, analytics is performed on it to derive actionable insights.
So far, many of the smart city and IoT projects JUSCO has been testing for Jamshedpur are in the PoC stage and need to be scaled up to cover the entire city, before Jamshedpur can truly become a fully functional smart city.
Mathur believes that this can happen as quickly as a year or so. “Our vision is that after the first phase of deployment—mid-January, when around 2,000 different sensors would be in place—we would get some initial data and analyse it to see how it is working. Then, we would ramp it up in a year or so to cover the entire city after which we should be monitoring everything from the C&C centre. So, all 1-million-plus citizens of Jamshedpur should start getting the benefits," he avers.
Mathur’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, industry experts say that, in general, the speed of work and desired outcomes for smart cities will need to be “calibrated" based upon “various external and internal conditions and constraints". One of the key challenges, according to N.S.N. Murty, partner and leader, smart cities at consulting firm PwC India, is “communication". While the Smart Cities Mission is targeting several aspects of city transformation and there is a special purpose vehicle (SPV) in place in most of the 90 cities selected by the mission so far, he notes, “It is important that the cities and SPVs communicate the necessity of every project and its expected outcomes to citizens. Otherwise, there will be a big difference between the ‘smart outcome’ perceived or expected by the citizens vis-a-vis that which is delivered by the project." Citing the example of creating infrastructure for non-motorized transport, he says that the idea is not only to calm the traffic and create “last and first mile connectivity" but also to give a healthy lifestyle option to the citizens. “The outcomes, once ‘communicated’ appropriately and clearly, will result in greater acceptance, usage and maintenance," he adds.
All in all, Murty says, each upcoming smart city should be assessed on the completion of the proposals submitted by it.
On its part, JUSCO is constantly on a learning path and, according to Mathur, wants to keep improving the quality and efficiency of its services. “We are in touch with various other cities and exchange notes with them on various platforms and we keep benchmarking our services against what others are doing," he says. Bartolo echoes similar sentiments: “Progressive cities are never completed; they keep on improving."