What was the impetus for the creation of smart communities in Stafford County?
Michael Cannon: A couple of years back, I had been doing a lot of research on smart cities, and got connected with David Ihrie, who is the CTO for the Center for innovative technologies (CIT). CIT has been encouraging and fostering innovation around smart cities that help spur economic development. We formed a partnership, and engaged OST International, a company with extensive experience with smart city technologies and deployments throughout the world. We initially conducted a feasibility study and came to a conclusion that constructing a smart Downtown Stafford is a greenfield development that requires infrastructure such as land, conduit, fiber, utilities, and smart lighting. We also realized that we could start with an existing building and construct a “Testbed” called “Virginia Smart Community Testbed” which would help in validating the innovation and use cases around IoT, sensors, and security concerns around smart applications before they are deployed in a Downtown Stafford.
What are the goals of the Stafford Smart Community initiative?
Smart cities can help communities by deploying technology that can improve the quality of life for its citizens. The use of sensors, and software can streamline city or county operations through the use of AI and machine learning to help make decisions rapidly and, in many cases, autonomously.
While some may consider that the innovations are intended only for residential neighborhoods, this smart city sets much broader goals with regards to attracting tourists, new businesses and residents to the neighborhood.
The goal is to build a vibrant, downtown Stafford by utilizing smart technology that will make it attractive and a desirable place for citizens of Stafford as well as visitors and tourists. Founded in 1600s, Stafford County has significant history with regards to the civil war, the childhood home of George Washington, and even the invention of the first drone. In addition, Stafford County has the newest state park in Virginia. The smart city initiative would help with attracting visitors to avail all these tourist spots.
What are the infrastructure considerations to implement a smart city/community project?
Since this is a greenfield development we would invest in significant amount of conduit and duct banks to support deployment of fiber. We want to make sure that we have Smart Lighting, potential cameras for security and support for WiFi and 5G since 5G will be an integral part of the utility structure for a smart community like downtown Stafford.
In our testbed, we are utilizing 5G small cell deployment, one of the few deployed in the Commonwealth of Virginia that supports the higher bandwidth that smart applications require.
What are some of the emerging technologies that are being implemented currently in the testbed?
Right now, we have several technologies under consideration with a variety of use cases. 5G and WiFi will be the backbone to support sensors and other IoT devices. Not all sensors require 5G, flood sensors we are deploying around County flood zones use 4G and are used to detect early warning signs of floods since we have areas around the along the Rappahannock river and the Potomac that are prone to flooding. Another use case we're looking at and have deployed is an outdoor smoke and particulate matter sensor that will sense forest fires that was enabled by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, and CIT. We have smoke sensors that are so sensitive, they can sense things from even 1000s of miles away. We have our first one deployed at our testbed.
We are working with the federal government to analyze and determine COVID-19 from wastewater. This is something that not only can help with the current pandemic, but could potentially be used for other applications, including the flu and other viruses that might emerge in the future. In a partnership with Virginia, we will be storing data in the State’s Commonwealth Data Trust and looking at ways to use this test data to detect spikes and outbreaks of the virus.
We are also utilizing video analytics to help improve public safety. We are using video camera technology to improve the security of our government center even more than it already is. A big part of this is to use video analytics to provide alerts. To be clear, we are not utilizing facial recognition as part of this, but it will be able detect mask wearing, counts of visitors, and geofencing.
Security is paramount with all of this and one of our partners, Onclave utilizes military grade blockchain technology to secure video cameras and other sensors in the testbed.
We are also doing working with our Sheriff's Office on utilizing drone technology for crime fighting, and we have a partnership with CIT to enhance situational awareness when the drones are deployed in the testbed and Downtown Stafford, and to be able to capture the data in a secure way. We're also working with CIT on a project called the Flight Information eXchange (FIX). It provides a way to enhance safety in the sky with all the drones out there. It would require commercial drone operators to register the space they are flying as to avoid collisions with other drones and not interfere with public safety or infringe on sensitive or protected air space.
What are some of the challenges that you can highlight for other business leaders to consider if they are thinking of implementing a smart community?
Funding is always going to be a concern as it costs more money upfront to deploy smart technologies. Demonstrating the return on investment is important and communicating this to the stakeholders so they can understand the value proposition.
Another is making sure you have a secure environment that won’t be prone to hacking or malware attacks. Security should be a key pillar in the development of a smart community and its essentially to educate and communicate that to all stakeholders.
It’s also important to build the infrastructure in upfront. While the technologies may change through time, having fiber and conduit throughout the smart community will help future-proof any technologies that may be added down the road.
How do you plan to address any privacy concerns raised by citizens?
We would ensure that any personally identifiable information is protected by obtaining consent. But consumers, are sometimes not aware of the implications. For example, they might click on a QR code and all the information about them might be transferred to the restaurant issuing it. So that's a consumer choice.
With video footage, we are not intending to use it with for any kind of facial recognition and we will have data governance around all this data that's being collected. We will ensure that all technology providers follow specific rules and contractual s agreements established to make sure that the data is being used in a responsible manner.
We're honored to be part of this testbed as the model community. Stafford County is the second fastest growing community in Virginia and our greenfield development offers a lot of potential that doesn’t require tearing up an existing development to deploy. There's real support from Stafford County staff and our elected officials to partner with the Center for Innovative Technologies (CIT) to make Stafford County a successful smart community and we thank CIT for ongoing support of this exciting project.