Pete Hoffswell thinks it’s better for miniature robotic sensors to do the talkin’ rather than public utility employees to do the walkin’ as they assess how the city of Holland’s 5-mile-long snowmelt sidewalk system is operating during the winter.

By installing paver blocks that transmit temperature and moisture conditions by radio at key points along the walkway, the Holland Board of Public Works may be able to better manage energy distribution and possibly save tens of thousands of dollars a year, said Hoffswell, Broadband Services Manager for the city-owned utility.

Unveiled this morning at the StartUp Weekend event held in Grand Rapids, Hoffswell’s ‘smart brick’ was one concrete example of how cities are working to improve their communities with a new technology that allows cheap microcontrollers to send and receive data over the internet – without the need for WiFi or 3G cellular service.

Start Garden, host of the StartUp Weekend event, sponsored a morning seminar at its offices to inform inventors and entrepreneurs about the technology and offer practical advice on how to harness its possibilities.

Start Garden, Steelcase Inc. and the city of Grand Rapids collaborated on the installation of a shoebox-sized device atop a four-story parking garage in downtown Grand Rapids that allows any member of the public to send and receive data using a radio frequency protocol called LoRaWAN and a way to analyze and store data through The Things Network. Cities around the world are using the system to track everything from trash collection to environmental conditions.

Startup IOT Hoffswell ResizedPete Hoffswell holds his smart brick that may manage energy better. Anyone roughly within a ½ mile radius of the transceiver at 40 Pearl St. can send data via long-range, low-power radio waves from remote locations throughout the downtown area without WiFi codes, mobile subscriptions or setup costs, said Austin Dean, operations director at Start Garden. Grand Rapids is the first city in Michigan to offer the new technology though The Things Network to the public.

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. It’s also possible to enter a command that can be sent through same network back to the sensor package.

“There are some really neat possibilities with the system” said Chris Samuelson, Iot Solution Architect with SpinDance in Holland who was teaching attendees how to make sensor packages and connect with The Things Network. “It can do predictive maintenance for roads and bridges, track air quality, do all sorts of things. And the beauty of the system is you don’t need to know anything about radio, protocols or electrical engineering to get started.”

That point was emphasized by Hoffswell, who said it took less than 2 weeks to figure out how to use the data package and set up the snowmelt monitoring system on the internet. “For instance, I didn’t have to figure out how to program the package because there are already programs written you can use,” he said. ““I knew nothing about the online programming, AT&T’s online Flow service and these particular data services before this project, but they were easy to learn and use.” Here’s a link to the specifics of how Hoffswell made his device: Smart Brick.

Hoffswell, who leads a group of technology enthusiasts in Holland called the Lakeshore Makers, used a different radio transmission package and network than the Start Garden gateway, but he is working on the next iteration of the device that will employ LoRaWAN for his smart brick. 

Applications abound for the new technology, he said. “When I asked how did we know how well (the snowmelt system) was working, the guys said ‘we get in a truck, drive around and look’,” Hoffswell said. “I thought this may improve the system.” He explained that the Holland Board of Public Works may be able to adjust the source of hot water that melts snow on streets and sidewalks in downtown Holland during the winter – the largest publicly owned snowmelt system in the United States.

With the Holland system, waste heat from power generation is captured as hot water and sent though miles of tubing to melt the snow. However, there are occasions when it is cheaper to buy electricity over the power grid and reduce energy usage at the Holland power plant. The utility uses an auxiliary boiler to keep the snowmelt system operating when it buys power, and radio sensors can signal when to fire up the auxiliary boiler.

One entrepreneur listening to the presentation asked Hoffswell if he thought the gateway could be used for the snow removal system on the Grand Rapids S-curve. “That may be a great application. Having a gateway like this will open up all sorts of possibilities,” he said. “People will start dreaming up all kinds of ideas. It’s really not hard to build the nodes.”