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IoT: Building blocks for smart cities

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 8, 2021 – February 14, 2021.

Eynez Syazmeena and Pathma Subramaniam/The Edge Malaysia
February 08, 2021 00:00 am +08

“We are still focusing on smart street light controllers but we have also started offering product development services.” - Faizal
“We are still focusing on smart street light controllers but we have also started offering product development services.” – Faizal

Globalisation and industrialisation have made major cities a magnet for talent and a driver of economic growth. The resultant rapid migration, however, has put immense pressure on urban infrastructure, with public authorities having to look for ways to make cities more effective and efficient.

Recognising this, Vectolabs Technologies Sdn Bhd, an Internet of Things (IoT) company, is working on smart city implementation in Malaysia.

Smart cities are the next area of focus, especially in Southeast Asia, which is projected to become the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2050. “We made a big bet on smart cities [when we moved here from the US],” says Faizal Ali, CEO and founder of Vectolabs.

The start-up began by experimenting with smart street light controllers, embedded with narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) — a low power wide area network (LPWAN) technology — to light highways and cities as well as densely populated areas such as universities and industrial parks.

With the street light controllers — aptly named Vectolights — local authorities can optimise energy use by customising the schedules of street lights. The smart solution was deployed at the Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Shah Alam campus in 2018 and has been used in the Universiti Putra Malaysia campus in Serdang as well as in Kuching and Pulau Kapas.

Faizal says Vectolabs decided to design services rather than products as it is much easier to customise services. The company is eyeing densely populated nations such as Indonesia and Vietnam as potential markets, seeing as these countries are also planning to develop smart cities to cope with rapid urbanisation.

According to the United Nations, 61% of the region’s population is expected to be concentrated in urban areas by 2040, up from 47% in 2015. It is important to note that Asean is already home to 630 million people and is, collectively, the world’s sixth-largest economy.

Owing to the growing population, in November 2019, Asean member countries agreed on an action plan to address city-specific needs through the Asean Smart Cities Network (ASCN). Apart from addressing problems such as traffic jams, poverty, pollution and homelessness, ASCN was established in 2018 to make the most of urbanisation to create an innovative climate for business.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity to become the forerunner in this lucrative space, Vectolabs applied to join the National Technology and Innovation Sandbox and has been tasked with building an IoT network in Putrajaya. The project, a partnership with Perbadanan Putrajaya, aims to create a “fair and neutral” network — one of the main barriers to smart city implementation.

“You can’t have a smart city without good connectivity,” says Faizal. And an efficient LPWAN network is necessary for the kind of smart city Putrajaya is planning.

“What we’re trying to do is build a framework for the city to build an LPWAN network, so that any IoT devices or technologies from all players can be employed. Otherwise, there will be a monopoly … we are trying to build an ecosystem.

“Right now, if I want to sell my street lights, I have to build the network. When the next guy comes in wanting to sell a water sensor, he has to build another network and on and on. So, we want a network that everybody can leverage. It is more efficient and cost-effective,” he adds.
Vectolabs’ speed sign radar can measure the average traffic speed at a section of the road where it has been employed as well as the number and type of vehicles that had driven past it (Photo by Vectolabs)

Capitalising on this trend, Vectolabs had had several projects lined up in cosmopolitan Jakarta but the coronavirus pandemic threw a spanner in the works, halting their progress.

Thus, the company decided to pivot its focus slightly. “We are still focusing on smart street light controllers but we have also started offering product development services,” says Faizal.

Vectolabs managed to secure a project to develop radar-enabled speed signs to help improve road safety, in collaboration with the Public Works Department (PWD). The idea behind the “Vectoradar” was to reduce the rate of accidents by getting speeding drivers to slow down, especially at blackspots — locations where road traffic accidents are concentrated.

“We have a speed sign radar … this is actually a speed sign that tells you to slow down. When you’re speeding and it shows you that you are driving beyond the permitted speed limit, most motorists tend to slow down. It’s very effective and you don’t have to put in speed bumps and rumble strips, which are annoying,” says Faizal.

So far, two radars have been placed at Sungai Buloh and Klang respectively, both of which are accident-prone areas and often register heavy traffic. “We noticed that in one of the areas, passing motorists would immediately slow down when they see the sign, but that could also be because there is a school there,” he says.

But the presence of the speed sign radar in one of the areas caused a stir when some road users mistook it for a speed enforcement camera and started rumours that speeding tickets were being issued. “We learnt the hard way how badly things could go if things aren’t explained well. The PWD had to issue a statement denying the rumours.”

Meanwhile, apart from measuring the average traffic speed at a section of the road — and the number of vehicles that had driven within or exceeded the speed limit — the sensors can also determine the kind of vehicles that had driven past them by capturing their size.

In addition to preventing accidents, PWD realised that this information would help it in terms of planning. For example, the information could be used to decide the kind of road surfaces that were needed, depending on road usage.

“PWD does not have to rely on manual counting … usually, someone has to sit in a particular spot for hours on end to keep track of the number and type of vehicles passing through a section of a federal road.

“Now, with the help of the sensors, we can automatically detect how many big and small vehicles pass by and it’s a lot more accurate than having a person sit there jotting down the numbers,” says Faizal.

Vectolabs has also extended its capabilities to developing IoT solutions for companies such as Petronas, Bateriku and Alam Flora. It is working with Petronas on several projects, including automating the national oil and gas giant’s decision-making processes and digitalising certain aspects of its business. It has also been engaged to run pilots using sensors in Petronas’ transporters.

Dubbed the Vectofleet AI — an integrated driver and vehicle monitoring technology, with artificial intelligence (AI) — the system is able to determine whether the transporter’s driver is a threat using AI.

“When we look at transport safety issues, accidents are mostly caused by drivers. So, if there is a smart camera facing the driver, the sensors could catch triggers such as drivers falling asleep [at the wheel]. If we are able to catch it right away, there is a high chance of reducing accidents,” says Faizal.

For Bateriku, Vectolabs built a predictive car maintenance device aimed at identifying risks of sudden breakdowns. Built to be user-friendly, the plug-and-play device is designed to prompt and alert car owners when a potential breakdown has been identified.

The tool is built in such a way that it is consistently detecting and analysing the voltage waveform of a car, even when it is not moving. The device is also compatible with any on-board diagnostic port available in any car, regardless of make and model.

As Bateriku has quite an extensive network — it services more than 10,000 cars monthly — this device comes in handy as it is able to gather information on driving patterns and develop a risk profile, information that is valuable to insurance companies that are adopting usage-based insurance.

Despite branching out into other areas, Vectolabs is still continuing to develop smart city technologies. The company has since built a smart bin solution prototype, which aids municipal councils in identifying bins that are full and effectively managing their pickups.

Vectolabs’ crowdfunded humble beginnings

When Vectolabs was initially conceptualised in a garage in San Diego, California, Faizal Ali — one of its co-founders — was not even thinking about the development of smart city technologies.

Instead, the avid motorist had come up with a method to detect deceleration using an accelerometer, which was developed into Vololights — an LED-based motorcycle brake light that provides visual warnings when a motorcycle decelerates.

The product was initially launched on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and the team raised US$54,000 for the units, which are being used in thousands of motorcycles, snow ploughs and electric trucks in the US and Canada. Companies such as Toyota Boshoku Indiana and Max Holder GmbH are among Faizal’s customers.

In 2016, however, the engineer decided to relocate to Malaysia after spending more than 15 years in the US — with a little nudge from the Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC).

After a rigorous process, Faizal successfully raised RM5 million from MTDC’s Business Start-up Fund and got to work on putting a team together to develop Internet of Things solutions and smart devices for Malaysia’s needs.

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