Harrisburg street lights to get smarter, collect data on anything from traffic to trash

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The city’s street lights are getting smarter.

Harrisburg is part of a select group set to start testing a new piece of tech that will be able to monitor everything from traffic to trash from the light system.

You might remember the city installing the new LED lights in the last couple years in a bid to save money on electricity and maintenance. The main thing to focus on with the new technology for some 5,000 lights city-wide is the small black device sticking out on top.

That’s what’s going to allow the city to get brighter.

“I try to get out four to five times a week,” James Evans said. He’s been running in Riverfront Park for 40 years — day, night, whenever.

The new street lights help him monitor his surroundings better than the old, dimmer ones.

“I like it now though,” he said, running upstream by the river near Reily Street. “You know, it’s more lit up for you. It makes you feel safer.”

The lights will soon be monitoring more themselves.

“We are moving in a smart city direction,” city engineer Wayne Martin said, “and it’s really exciting.”

Martin said they can already control the new lights remotely through the black nodes on top. They transmit wirelessly to a central system through three metal boxes wired with antennas mounted around the city.

“We turn the lights down in the park so that people can enjoy the fireworks,” he explained, “and then as soon as they’re over, we turn them back on.”

Those nodes simply twist off, allowing the city to upgrade the system through the years. Martin called it a way of “future-proofing” an expensive investment.

In 6-12 months, the UK-based smart lighting company Telensa plans to send the city upgraded nodes. They’ll be free; part of a pilot program.

Other cities may also be getting a few to test out on a trial basis, but Martin believes Harrisburg is the only city-wide system in the U.S. that will get the new nodes.

The key difference between these and the ones currently in use: the upgrades will be equipped with USB ports.

“So what we can do is then we can plug in some other device that collects data,” Martin said, “and transmit that data back to our control system.”

Those sensors could potentially monitor traffic flows, air pollution, and flood levels.

“There’s ideas of monitoring public trash cans to determine when they’re full and ready for pickup,” he said.

But no video, Martin said. That’s simply too much data.

Add this initiative to the recent installation of a self-driving car guidance system put in place last September for researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, and Harrisburg’s infrastructure continues to get smarter.

Martin said the world is starting to notice.

He was invited to Australia last month by the government there to talk about Harrisburg’s smart street light system. He was one of just three engineers from the U.S. to give a presentation at an international public works conference.

They’re not trying to be Big Brother with these new technologies, Martin said, just trying to make the city brighter.

“Doesn’t bother me,” Evans said with a laugh. The regular runner has no problem with a smarter city, especially if it also means it’s safer.

“I’m not doing wrong,” he said, “so, you know, you can monitor me all they want.”

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