Austin Dean at Start Garden is working to introduce The Things Network to Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids is the first city in Michigan to harness a new technology though The Things Network that may someday reduce traffic congestion, fight crime, manage pollutants entering the Grand River and improve the efficiency of trash collection.

Next Friday, Austin Dean and his colleagues will flip the switch on a shoebox-sized device atop a four-story parking garage in downtown Grand Rapids that could guide the way for the city in the 21st century. The transceiver will allow any member of the public to send and receive encrypted data through the internet without wires, WiFi and cellular connections.

After that gateway is opened, anyone roughly within a ½ mile radius of the transceiver at 40 Pearl can send data via long-range, low-power radio waves from remote locations throughout the downtown area, said Dean, operations director at Start Garden, which is supporting the project along with Steelcase Inc. and the city of Grand Rapids.

Austin Dean Resized 3Austin Dean stands by the gateway at Start Garden“The applications are limited only by someone’s imagination,” he said. “For instance, you could install sensors in the city’s sewer system to remotely monitor stormwater runoff from particular branches or keep track of busses as they are running their routes.” The beauty of the system is its low cost in transmitting and receiving data, which allows devices to talk through the internet without Wifi codes, mobile subscriptions or setup costs.

As a way to foster creative thinking, Start Garden will be hosting practical demonstrations of how to use the remote sensor network during its Startup Weekend, running from Jan. 13-15 at its offices. Staff members will show any participants how to radio link with the gateway using a $20 microcontroller called an Arduino Uno and sensors to monitor the environment digitally, such as temperature, light, water flow, and movement.

“It’s relatively easy to create these sensor packages and connect through the gateway,” said Dean, who credits Darrin Sculley at Steelcase as the technical whiz who made the project possible. Steelcase paid for the components and designed the mounting brackets for the transceiver, and the city of Grand Rapids installed the device about two weeks ago.

Dean said similar networks are being tested in San Diego, Louisville, Ky. and Austin, Texas under the federal Smart City Initiative that was launched last year to see how cities can improve the lives of their citizens through wireless data collection and analysis. The Grand Rapids system will link with The Things Network, which uses a radio frequency protocol called Long Range Wide-area network (LoRaWAN) for its transmissions, sidestepping the need for 3G or WiFi.

Here’s how the Grand Rapids system works. A battery-powered sensor package in a remote location detects a change in its environment, encrypts the data and transmits it via radio waves to the Start Garden gateway. The gateway has a hardwired connection to the internet, and the data is sent to The Things Network, where is it stored on the organization’s server for retrieval and further action. 

The Things Network states on its website that can entire city can be connected through this type of network with a minimum of cost. For instance, the city of Amsterdam has been connected with only 10 gateways at the cost of $1,200 each, according to the organization. The website shows Grand Rapids as being the only location in Michigan with an operating site, although the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor may soon join that list.

Grand Rapids has a data network to support traffic controls and homeland security efforts, said Paul Klimas, director of information technology for the city of Grand Rapids. He said there have been discussions about the possibility of using street light posts for a network connecting neighborhoods, but there aren’t any plans to implement such a system.

“There’s a larger question here about these types of networks,” Dean said. “Would it make sense for the city to use public money to set up these networks -- is that a good use of public funds? I think maybe it can be. We’re certainly going to find out more with our own project.”