The Internet of Things in the Field
Two Israeli companies, with the support of the Innovation Authority, have developed technologies that are based on the vast possibilities offered by the IoT. Both startups offer efficient and sophisticated solutions to global problems in two different areas – smart management of transportation and ongoing control of agricultural fields from home.
"1.2 million people are killed in traffic accidents every year", declares Tal Kreisler, CEO of NoTraffic. "At the same time, traffic congestion in large cities increases by 12% annually. Apart from the grief and pain involved, this also has significant economic ramifications. In Israel we are talking about a loss of billions of shekels to the economy every year as the result of traffic jams and an estimated cost of approximately 6 million shekels for each person killed in a traffic accident. This is in addition to other destructive repercussions such as increased air pollution due to more time spent on the road, a resultant higher risk of disease, and others. In order to solve these problems, we need to address the world of traffic management."
NoTraffic was founded in 2016 by 3 partners: Tal Kreisler, Or Sela and Uriel Katz. Since its inception, the company has been engaged in the development of sophisticated yet easily installable systems that optimizes traffic management platform. As Kreisler explains, the choice of intersections as the place of action stems from their importance in the general traffic system: "The traffic signal's role is safety and traffic management. A signalized intersection is a point of conflict and friction between drivers and other drives, as well as drivers and pedestrians. Approximately 40% of all accidents occur at intersections and a fair proportion of traffic congestion is caused by bottlenecks and points of friction at intersections."
Much More than Red and Green
Kreisler describes what happens in the world of transportation we are familiar with: "The classic ecosystem is divided roughly into two: the world of motor vehicles on the one hand, and on the other hand – infrastructure, which includes all the surrounding factors that facilitate traffic movement. Unfortunately, the infrastructure world is lagging years behind. Until now, the two sides existed on two parallel lines which lead, among others, to a lack of correlation between traffic movement and the infrastructures. This stems from pre-programmed traffic signal timings which in turn causes traffic jams and even accidents. Traffic on the road is dynamic and influenced by constantly changing circumstances such as objects blocking the road, flooding, accidents and others. Today, most traffic signal systems are static and operate on the base of pre-set programs and are therefore not designed to handle or adapt themselves to changeable circumstances."
"Although tremendous amounts of money are invested in the world of transportation infrastructure, it still operates in an extremely archaic manner. Even today, most of the world’s traffic management systems are based on solutions developed decades ago. One of them is the loop sensor, or as many mistakenly call it, ‘the weight sensor’, that is supposed to send information to the traffic signal whenever a vehicle is situated above it. In reality, this is not a weight sensor but rather a kind of metal detector which is supposed to identify the presence of something metal above it via magnetic induction. This is the reason that a motorbike won’t necessarily activate the sensor – it simply doesn’t always contain the necessary amount of metal. The loop sensor is today’s “workhorse” in this field. Despite its installation, it is still necessary to monitor and count the traffic every few years, a process that costs significant amounts of money."
"Because the traffic signals operate as a network, there is a close connection between each intersection and what happens at the other intersections in the area. However, when a traffic police officer attempts to free up a congested intersection, he has no knowledge of what is happening at the next intersection leading to chaos. This is still happening today, just as it did decades ago."
"It is important to understand that a traffic light is much more than just red and green", Kreisler explains. "A traffic light is actually a city's tool for managing the traffic. Every city manages the traffic in its jurisdiction using traffic signals which translate the city's traffic management policy into reality on the road. In other words, through the use of the traffic signal system, the city chooses whether to prioritize certain traffic arteries or certain vehicles such as public transport or emergency vehicles. For example, the city can create a green wave to increase the average travel speed or a red wave to reduce it in areas in proximity to kindergartens."
"Cities aspire to provide better traffic services and some have established control centers that cost millions of dollars. The problem is that largely, the control capability of these centers is limited and merely enable to change only between pre-set programs while a human eye is still needed in the control center to identify congestion at the intersection."
"Several processes have been occurring in recent years which have now paved the way for searching for a solution that will improve today's problematic situation. The first process is the aggressive technological progress that has been achieved in the world of hardware and software and which enables us to cheaply achieve things far beyond what we could have done in the past, such as using artificial intelligence, picture processing and utilizing a set of tools that was not available ten years ago."
"The second process is connected to the world of infrastructure. This is a world that until recently was characterized by an extremely conservative approach, among others because people in the field usually come from a less technological background. In recent years there has been a noticeable trend of people with technological knowledge joining the field out of an aspiration to use technology in order to make further improvements."
"The third process is the development of the connected and autonomous vehicles – vehicles that can ‘communicate’ with its surroundings. However, while the vehicle itself is developing rapidly, the pace of infrastructure development is much slower. The auto manufacturers are turning directly to states and cities and asking to integrate their connected cars into the existing world of traffic. In this case, nobody will act as a mediator between the vehicle and the infrastructure, and thus no one will protect the city's traffic management agenda or represent the city's interests."
"The developing technology, the human element, the development of the autonomous vehicle, and the motor companies' desire to break the cycle and 'communicate' directly with the infrastructure have all now combined to create possibilities and opportunities which can offer a solution that will enable autonomous vehicles to take to the city's roads while still leaving traffic management capability in the city's hands. The ultimate outcome of the systems' integration should be a significant reduction in both accidents and traffic congestion."
Queen of the Intersection
NoTraffic’s system can be deployed at any intersection and includes:
- A sensor unit with a range of sensors gathers data on all road users in the proximity of the intersection and analyzes the data in the end unit. The data is gathered via advanced algorithms of computerized vision, machine learning, communication with the vehicle and others.
- A control unit that is connected to the traffic light controller at the intersection and which uses the processed data sent in real-time from the sensor units in order to maximize the traffic flow and improve safety at the intersection.
Kreisler explains how the system operates: "Traffic management is based on receiving various categories of real-time data about the identity, quantity and speed of all the different objects on the road, divided into various categories. The data is gathered through sensors that are installed at signalized intersections. Our main interest is what occurs 250 meters before the stop line – because that is the data that is required for optimal traffic management."
"This is where we come into the picture and deploy our system in 'Plug and Play' form at signalized intersections. The units are connected only by electricity without the need for expensive infrastructure because all the processing takes place at the end-point for each individual unit. Until now, the high cost of such infrastructure rendered the different solutions less attractive and impractical."
The sensor unit gathers data from two channels of information:
- Data received from unconnected vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles: anything that cannot communicate with its surroundings. We use advanced algorithms of picture processing and other sensors. These algorithms map and identify all the objects in the surrounding vicinity at human eye level and enable the system to identify who is currently occupying it. The distinction is of such high quality that it can distinguish between a taxi and a regular car. As soon as the system identifies the object, it calculates its direction, speed and estimated time of arrival at the intersection.
- Data received from direct communication with connected vehicles: all the connected vehicles will "talk" one of two main technologies: LTE wireless communication or DSRC - a dedicated short-range communications channel, a common vehicle-infrastructure model. Both technologies facilitate communication with the motor vehicles.
"Even before the vehicle reaches the intersection, the units receive the data from it regarding its location, type and travel direction, and then calculate the estimated time until arrival at the intersection. It's like a kind of control tower which, using advanced algorithms, knows how to receive the same data from connected, unconnected and autonomous vehicles."
"Its capability to identify and track every object also allows the system to identify anomalies – for example, pedestrians behind parked cars or when a vehicle accelerates when approaching a red light in an attempt to 'jump' it. This is one of the ideal solutions for conduct in a hybrid environment."
"The system is capable of evaluating the direction of the objects' progress and can identify when two objects are on a “collision course” – in other words, we know when an accident is about to occur and can issue a warning. The system is capable of warning vehicles or drivers if they are travelling on a route that may end in a collision. We know how to send information to systems installed in a vehicle or a smartphone."
"At each signalized intersection there is a computer, called a traffic light controller, which manages the lights. Our system connects to the controller, so all the data gathered by the sensor units is sent to the control unit which is connected to the controller. This unit can control the traffic light and aims to preserve safety while maximizing traffic flow. We operate within existing safety restrictions and therefore merely adapt the traffic light's timing to events on the road without altering safety definitions. The controller unit transfers the data to the cloud from where it is transferred to the other intersections, thereby creating a network in which all the intersections know which and how many vehicles are expected at any given location."
"This data is all sent to the end user – the city's traffic department – by a control panel located in the cloud and this is the real practical meaning of a 'smart city'. The system enables the city real-time knowledge of events on the roads, including the number of vehicles, different categorizations, accidents, irregular events, vehicles stuck on the road, etc. Most cities do not currently possess a control center and the overwhelming majority of them lack automatic data analysis. Our systems provide the city with real-time analysis and alerts of events that require a response and also enable seamless implementation of the city's traffic agenda – for example, prioritizing buses in a particular traffic lane at certain times of the day – thereby significantly empowering cities and public transportation."
The Trial and Success Stage
"We currently have pilot trials in more than ten cities across the United States", Kreisler says. "We recently successfully completed a trial that is one of the first of its kind in the world, and which demonstrated in real-time the potential capabilities of communication between motor vehicles and smart infrastructure."
"The trial was conducted in conjunction with the Ashdod municipality and another company that manufactures a vehicle sensor system. For the purposes of the trial, we closed a signalized intersection in the city's northern industrial zone where we simulated two scenarios which were based on accidents common in urban environments: first the identification of a vehicle that 'jumps' a red light and transmission of data to another vehicle located at an angle of 90 degrees from it; secondly- a pedestrian who jumps into the road in an area in which the vehicle's vision is impaired."
"In the two scenarios we examined the systems succeeded in identifying the risk of collision and in fully alerting the drivers. It must be remembered that in an autonomous world, the urban areas are those that are most difficult to model due to the prevalence of unforeseen events. Our system provides a supplementary picture and enables the construction of a foundation for an autonomous world with a solution that already today provides extremely high value."
"Our technology possesses three main advantages in comparison to other systems that exist today: a concentration of several solutions in a single system that is translated into significant saving, rapid installation and deployment, and a set of tools that bridge the technological gap between the vehicle and infrastructure worlds. We estimate that use of our system can save up to 70% of cities' existing costs. This is undoubtedly a very important progress towards the creation of a traffic infrastructure that will enable both regular and connected vehicles to travel in a safer and more efficient world."
The Field Wrote That It Wants More Water
"There is a wide range of applications for smart sensors," explains Tzachi Schnarch, Director of the Innovation Authority's International Collaboration Division.
"The Authority supports technologies that provide a response to common challenges, such as contending with the increasing problem of traffic congestion. At the same time, the Authority also lends its support to unique technologies that offer smart agricultural solutions by using sensors that enable the gathering of data and continuous data analysis."
"The IoT allows us to connect a large number of things that were not previously connected to the internet – and that is exactly what we are doing: connecting agricultural fields to the internet," explains Tomer Tzach, CEO of CropX.
"This connectivity enables us to 'translate' the state of the ground into critical data that can be sent to the farmer via a simple and user-friendly application. Our sensors are embedded in the ground and discover what it needs. With this knowledge, we can save water and fertilizer, improve the crop yield and enhance the ground itself. We have a client who says 'I used to get up at 4:00 in the morning and go out into the fields. Today, I get up, brush my teeth and by the time my coffee is ready – I already have all the information.'"
Tzach, a former air force pilot, has had a diverse career including positions in software development, startup company management, venture capital and others. When he became CEO of CropX, Tzach was immediately enthused at the idea of using technology in agriculture, of a product that combines hardware, software and human capital: "This is the third company that I have managed, and its human resources are one of the things that makes it special. We have an amazing team, most of whom are graduates of elite army units. We have programmers who served in 'Mamram' (the IDF Center of Computing and Information Systems) and the elite IDF intelligence Unit 8200, in IAF air scout units, and agronomists who are graduates of other elite IDF units. They all possess special achievement-focused DNA."
The company was founded more than four years ago when the idea was still in its infancy. Following an in-depth, lengthy hardware development process, the final product was born. Sales began a year ago, initially in the United States, and have since expanded to other countries around the world.
CropX owns experimental fields in Israel but is currently focusing its sales efforts abroad. One of the company's goals is to succeed in sales to the southern hemisphere: Australia, New Zealand and South America. "The product has an important seasonal element," Tzach explains, "and sales to the southern hemisphere will allow us to benefit from an extra season each year."
The technology developed by CropX is based on a combination of hardware and software. It is made up of an array of specifically designed sensors that are easy to embed in the ground. The hardware is a sensor that receives a large amount of data directly from the ground on which the software runs large-scale, big data analysis using a combination of different technologies. The results are immediately displayed on a mobile application that gives growers a clear report about the state of the ground with regards to fertilizing and irrigation.
"The sensor sends data via the cloud and can connect from anywhere," Tzach explains. "This is the only sensor that also 'talks' via satellite communication. Once the data reaches the servers, the software begins analyses of the figures. We can provide significant benefit to the grower: a saving in water and electricity, a lowering of the need for irrigation systems, an optimization of fertilizer use, which is considered the largest farming expense, and more. A grower knows that if he accumulates fertilizer when the ground is moist, it will all be washed away. With the help of the sensors, we are capable of looking at the ground and telling the farmer that he is not watering the roots enough or not fertilizing sufficiently and therefore losing crops."
"The advantage of a sensor in the ground is that it enables the prevention of negative phenomena before they reach an advanced stage. Use of satellite pictures, for example, as is done today, allows us to learn about problems only after they have occurred and already spread to and extensively affected the crops themselves. By contrast, the sensors are capable of sensing and issuing alerts about deficiencies even before they damage the crops. This saving of time is very important and is expressed by the ability to warn the grower two weeks earlier than data received from aerial pictures."
The Only Solution for Large Fields
"Our main market is wide-area field crops of corn, potato, wheat and cotton, which constitute approximately 80% of the world's agriculture. We have developed the only technology relevant to these fields. Other existing technologies have difficulty contending with such crops for several reasons: the vast areas involved render these solutions extremely expensive and therefore uneconomic. A further problem to which others are yet to find a solution is the lack of wireless reception in large fields, which in turn precludes the use of the other sensors. Our technology solves these problems."
"Our uniqueness is also expressed by the sensors’ easy installation – other solutions require a technician for installation while ours can be embedded in the field very easily without the need for a professional technician. This means both lower cost and the option of deploying the sensors easily and relatively quickly over agricultural areas of 5 hectares. Naturally, the system also operates in smaller fields."
"Another of our extremely important benefits for the farmer is in the regulatory sphere. In many countries in which large numbers of dairy cows are raised in a particular area, large amounts of the cows' dung accumulate and seep into the groundwater. In Ireland, for example, the drinking water has become contaminated and the EU has intervened and limited the number of cows per hectare. There is a similar problem in New Zealand where in some places, tourists cannot enter the water. Our sensors allow us to say where the number of cows needs to be reduced and to which area they can safely be moved, thereby solving the problem of water contamination."
"In the last two years, we have received funding as a 'scientific company' from the Innovation Authority, enabling us to progress further. This is wonderful, and we are very grateful to the Authority for this support. We have met different angels abroad, and they all express admiration of the State of Israel's ecosystem and its support of startups—especially in comparison to other countries."
"I hope that the Authority will continue supporting us in subsequent development. We are in the process of adding another feature to the sensor: we initially focused on irrigation, and we are now also measuring fertilizer and protection of crops against pests. We are constantly engaged in development including enhancement of hardware and sensory capability, as well as improvement of analysis and use of data. In the future, we will also be capable of covering even larger areas as we continue our development."
"Our vision is in data. Now that we have created a sensor that can be easily installed anywhere in the world, we can achieve anything. The goal is hundreds of thousands of sensors all around the world measuring all kinds of data – the type of ground, its size, when it was fertilized, its temperature. This measurement will enable us to receive a global chart and will serve as the base of much insight. This is the 'big data play' that we are all after, and it's all happening thanks to IoT."