Tech talk: How Alabama thrives in the Internet of Things

Earlier this year Mercedes-Benz engineer Peter Lehmann pushed a button on a smartphone app at the former Naval Air Station Alameda near San Francisco and a sleek, silver F 105 autonomous concept car pulled out of a garage, stopped in front of a group of journalists eager for a ride and lifted its four bay doors—all without a driver inside. As the group approached the vehicle for a test ride, a female voice signaled that it was safe to pass in front with a “Please go ahead.” Inside, the four passengers rode around the airfield facing each other in white leather seats, chatting as if they were lounging in a hotel lobby.

While not yet fully functional, the move toward driverless cars is just one way the tech savvy are keeping pace with the Internet of Things (IoT), the way Internet-enabled devices communicate with each other without a human playing middleman. And when it comes to dreaming up the next big thing, the same smart technologies that are changing the transportation industry are making other technologies of the future a reality for today.

Birmingham will up its IoT tech with a public bike sharing program this fall that will allow users to access cycles from self-service kiosks via radiofrequency identification technology and a subscription ranging from one-day access to one year. One hundred of the 400 bikes will use electricity to assist in pedals, and the GPS on board will track use and in what parts of town the program should grow.

Energy experts say the data that can be gathered from these smart technologies leads to more efficiency, smarter living and a better bottom line. One of the features on the Mercedes concept car is a light show that will project a green crosswalk onto the road to signal pedestrians it is safe to cross. Soon traffic lights at intersections will learn transportation patterns and adjust themselves for traffic flow optimization. And outdoor lighting systems will use only the appropriate amount of glow based on traffic and the time of day.

Alabama’s future in the IoT is heating up, and the benefits of smart sensors and Internet-enabled devices are accessible to anyone. Whether you want to kick some of the costs for lighting, air conditioning, running machinery or pushing water through the pipes, engineering tools can be used to break down the data collected by these gadgets into something you can act on. The savings associated with IoT technology can then be cycled back into business to provide higher salaries for employees, create new positions or lower costs passed on to customers. And it’s making a big difference in the bottom line for offices, supermarkets, airports, hotels, campuses, hospitals, federal buildings, industrial plants and other businesses.

For those already monitoring energy usage, new grid technologies can take your savings to the next level. For example, you may be keeping tabs on water and energy output on your campus, but can you track which buildings use the largest amount of energy resources at different hours of the day and decrease usage on other sectors in real time to save money? It’s simply a matter of knowing how to layer the numbers.

Calhoun Community College is one of several post-secondary school systems making the switch from a master meter to sub-meters so staff can observe and wirelessly regulate how much energy each building is using at a time. Director of Physical Plant, Bruce Causey says one of his favorite features is Internet-ready HVAC controls that can be switched to Demand Response during peak hours, helping the campus shed 40 percent of its kilowatt usage on a hot summer day. HVAC troubleshooting and adjustments can be made remotely from any wireless device.

“We can use our iPads, our laptops. My HVAC technicians can be at home or at a ballgame, and if we get a call from campus saying somebody in one of the buildings is really hot or really cold, we can log onto the system right there, look at it and see what the problem is,” Causey says. “Maybe somebody didn’t communicate there would be a meeting going on, or a staff member decided to come in on a Saturday to get some work done, [and they need the thermostat adjusted]. That has been real helpful.”

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