A pilot program the City is gearing up to deploy will focus on testing smart traffic signals around the South Texas Medical Center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

From streetlights that sense air quality and rising floodwaters to traffic signals that automatically adjust to the flow of cars, several San Antonio streets are about to get “smarter.”

Under the ongoing SmartSA initiative, some San Antonio streetlamps and stoplights are getting tech upgrades as a part of two pilot programs, City officials said during an Innovation and Technology Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Through SmartSA partnerships with CPS Energy and private vendors AT&T and Itron, the Office of Innovation is launching a smart streetlight project, the first of these pilot programs, in the coming weeks, said Brian Dillard, the City’s chief innovation officer.

SmartSA is the City’s plan for bringing in technology-centered projects that improve residents’ lives. Launched in 2016, the initiative focuses on six key challenges facing San Antonians: mobility, access to services, tools for resident feedback, at-risk youth, trade and tech education programs, and internet access for all.

Smart streetlights

With AT&T and Itron installing “smart” sensors on streetlights across three San Antonio “innovation zones,” the City soon will kick off its six-month pilot period evaluating these sensors and the data they bring in.

The sensors are being attached to existing lighting infrastructure in each of the three zones: Brooks, downtown, and the South Texas Medical Center. They will be able to send back information about air quality and temperature, noise levels, and nearby water levels. The sensors also can look for available parking spots and transmit the information to electronic signs.

Itron has installed three environment sensors, 50 smart light nodes, three water sensors, and three parking sensors, said Emily Royall, smart city coordinator. AT&T has installed nine environment sensors, 42 smart light nodes, and three water sensors. AT&T also will install a number of parking sensors, Royall added.

Smart nodes include the streetlight’s LED bulb, as well as a GPS tracker, photo sensor, noise sensor, and power meter. These features allow the light to be controlled remotely and wirelessly and to ping officials if something malfunctions, Royall said.

“Our ultimate goal is to replace all streetlights with LEDs,” Royall said of the 128,000 streetlights in CPS Energy’s service area. Many still use high pressure sodium bulbs, said Richard Medina, CPS Energy’s vice president of grid modernization and engineering.

Dillard said the six-month clock on the pilot program won’t begin until AT&T is finished installing the parking sensors. After this period, all involved parties will meet to evaluate the performance of the technologies.

The pilot program comes with no cost to the City or CPS Energy. After the six months, City officials will work with CPS Energy to determine the project cost, Royall said. From there, officials from the City and CPS Energy will weigh their next steps, Medina said.

This tech will have security features that ensure the data and ownership of the data will not be shared, Dillard said. The sensors will not include cameras or any other hardware that could help officials specifically identify individuals, Dillard added.

“One of the major sticking points that caused us to take our time with this is to make sure that we do have our data sharing agreements in place – not only between the public agencies, but also with the vendors to make sure that those limitations are in place,” Dillard said. “This is the residents’ data, this is San Antonio’s data, and that ownership is not going to be relinquished.”

Smart traffic signals

The other pilot program the City is gearing up to deploy will focus on testing smart traffic signals around the medical center, said City Traffic Signal Engineer Mark Jacobson. 

These adaptive traffic signals will be able to read the traffic flow in areas that have unusual patterns, Jacobson explained.

“In traditional signal timing, the way we do that is …  we count how many cars, trucks, pedestrians, and bicycles are using the intersection,” Jacobson said. “[We count] how many of them are going straight through, how many are turning and that sort of thing, and we take all of that data and we plug it into computer simulation models.”

These models allow city engineers to develop a timing plan that will minimize traffic stops. Lights are then programmed around a schedule for specific patterns to happen during high-traffic hours, Jacobson explained.

One of the downsides of this traditional timing approach is that if there are significant changes between the plans’ development and implementation, they could cause delays at an intersection, he said.

At places with varying schedules – such as near shopping centers, movie theaters, or hospitals – this can be a major issue, Jacobson said.

Adaptive signals take a different approach, Jacobson said.

“The adaptive signal timing strategy uses technology at the intersection and on computer servers that we have to allow the traffic signals to adjust to the traffic condition – and in potentially real time,” Jacobson said.

Several smart signals were installed in September 2018 between Six Flags Fiesta Texas and The Rim shopping center and have had positive results, Jacobson said.

The new pilot program will allow city officials to test the smart signals at more complicated intersections, Jacobson said.

“This is going to provide a test bed that will have crossing roadways and more traffic than what we had at [La Cantera],” he said.

Officials will begin development of the project in January and likely will begin the testing and data collection phase in April, Jacobson said. He estimated the project will cost $25,000 to implement.

“We can review that and make sure that we’re confident that the system is going to work correctly before we flip the switch and and allow it to take over the traffic signals,” he said. “We could be doing that as soon as in May of 2021.”

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...