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Boston University College of Engineering

URBAN LIFE 2.0 Creating the Smarter City


Picture a city that runs so smoothly it’s practically

that includes multiple sensor networks

hassle-free. When you’re behind the wheel of your

throughout the city that collect and transmit data,

electric car, a sensor network finds and reserves a

and centralized software programs that receive

desirable parking spot or recharging station, or

the data and apply systems engineering

reroutes you to avoid a traffic jam. At home, a

techniques to act on it, making optimal decisions

smart micro-grid minimizes your electricity

and allocating resources in real time.

consumption, and LED lights provide Internet

With funding from the National Science

connectivity in addition to illumination. Around the

Foundation, the departments of Defense, Energy

clock, a fleet of cameras with sophisticated

and Homeland Security, the National Institutes of

software patrols the streets and other public

Health and the private sector, these researchers

spaces for suspicious activities, advanced

are developing systems that may revolutionize

hardware and software in your smartphone keep

the way the city is viewed: from a passive living

your personal data secure, and an electronic

and working environment to a highly dynamic

implant enables your doctor to monitor your vital

one with new, more effective ways to meet

signs remotely and proactively prevent disease.

transportation, energy, communication,

This Smart City is getting closer to reality, thanks

security and healthcare challenges. As cities

in large part to Boston University College of

across the globe strive to accommodate

Engineering researchers, who are laying its

significant population growth and an aging

mathematical and technological foundations.

society, all while minimizing their carbon

Collaborating with industry, the City of Boston,

footprint and costs, these new approaches offer a

local neighborhoods and colleagues across the

promising way forward. For more information,

university, they are advancing an infrastructure


Applications Privacy


Collecting data is not ‘smart,’ just a necessary step to being ‘smart.’ Processing data to make good decisions is ‘smart.’

Data Collection

Control and Optimization Actions

— Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE)


Information Processing

Decision Making Safety

Energy Management

The closed-loop system defining a Smart City entails not only collecting data from sensors, but also implementing control actions through devices based on intelligent decision making.

Lighting the Way to High-Speed Internet Access Imagine flipping a digital wall switch to activate a white LED ceiling lamp that illuminates your living room and connects your laptop, smartphone and other networked devices in the room to the Internet. Requiring far less energy than incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs, a new generation of highly adaptable and computercontrollable solid state “Smart Lights” developed by College of Engineering researchers could illuminate a defined space and facilitate high-speed, optical wireless communication and networking among electronic devices within that space. Smart Lights can be programmed to provide illumination only as needed, and exploited by a smart grid to reduce electricity demand within a room, building or city during peak periods. As a commercial and residential lighting source, LEDs are unique in their ability to turn on and off very quickly—so quickly the eye cannot notice—and therein lies their ability to transmit data to equipped devices. And they can do so at larger bandwidth and with higher security than radio-based Wi-Fi. As LEDs begin to take hold, faculty in the NSF Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at BU aim to couple them with this capability.


LEDs can be turned on and off very quickly, or modulated, to achieve data transmission. This scheme can vastly improve the wireless capacity of indoor spaces when used by itself or in conjunction with existing WiFi. — Professor Thomas D.C. Little (ECE, SE)

Researchers at the National Science Foundation Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, of which Boston University is a core partner, are enhancing the BU Smart Lighting prototype in collaboration with academic and industrial partners.

BU College of Engineering

Building the Smart City’s Information Infrastructure The engine of a Smart City is information—up-tothe-minute data on bridges, highways, buildings, vehicles, utilities, trash cans and other municipal resources that’s collected around the clock by a network of sensors deployed throughout the city, and relayed to a command and control center. But sensors don’t transmit well over long distances and are limited by their battery life. That’s why College of Engineering researchers envision a sparse sensor network visited periodically by police cruisers, buses, taxi cabs and other vehicles that continuously move through a city like blood coursing through veins and arteries. When close to the sensor, each vehicle could interrogate it, upload its data and transmit it to a command and control center. To determine where to locate the sensors, how to schedule vehicles to ensure that information is collected often enough, and resolve other implementation challenges, the researchers are developing algorithms, running simulations and staging small mobile robot experiments.





Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE) and systems engineering Yanfeng Geng (PhD’13) developed a preliminary version of a Smart Parking system that enables a driver to enter a desired destination and price range into a mobile device and reserve a vacant, appropriately-priced parking space that’s closest to the destination.

Driving Hassle-Free Imagine driving in a city where you never have to search for a parking spot, traffic tie-ups are rare, and information on nearby accidents is displayed on your dashboard almost instantaneously. Inspired by this vision, a College of Engineering-led research team is creating the technological infrastructure for a wide range of Smart City applications aimed at reducing the congestion, pollution, fossil fuel consumption, accidents, cost and sheer inconvenience associated with operating motor vehicles in an urban environment. Applications include a Smart Parking system that assigns and reserves parking spaces based on a smartphone-equipped driver’s requested destination and price range, a traffic regulation system


Studies have shown that in any major city center, about 30 percent of cars are cruising around looking for parking, increasing air pollution and traffic congestion. Our system could reduce all those problems. — Professor Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE)

that dynamically controls traffic lights based on real-time road conditions to improve the flow of vehicles throughout a city, and electric vehicle charging stations where drivers can pay to download electric power to their vehicle from a smart grid—or get paid to upload excess electric power from their vehicle to the grid. To enable such applications, the researchers are developing a software-controlled, mobile sensor network that will collect and exchange data such as accident locations; dynamically allocate resources such as available parking spaces; ensure secure and reliable data exchange across the network; and make realtime decisions.

Optimizing HVAC Systems Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems account for 50 to 70 percent of energy use in mid- to large-sized buildings, and energy use and cost scales strongly with airflow. This is particularly true in older buildings designed when energy was much cheaper and HVAC systems relied on high air flow rates to ensure adequate ventilation and comfortable temperature and humidity levels. But heating, cooling and circulating so much air is costly.

BU College of Engineering

Redesigning the Power Infrastructure Systems engineering and architecture faculty at BU and MIT are collaborating on a holistic approach to lower the carbon footprint and energy cost in buildings while enabling a more sustainable and affordable electric power infrastructure. The approach leverages synergies between advanced, micro-grid-equipped buildings and dynamic utility retail markets to reduce electric power consumption, accommodate unpredictable clean energy generation fluctuations, and reduce reliance on carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels. Their research shows that building instrumentation and data collection coordinated by decision-support software motivates occupants to monitor and control smart appliances, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and other grid-friendly devices. Distributed generation systems, such as rooftop photovoltaics, together with diverse new power users, such as electric vehicles, enable advanced building communities not only to tap external power sources but also to sell some of their own power to the grid at low cost. In related research, College of Engineering faculty are developing new algorithms to reconfigure transmission line networks and ultimately reduce the overloading of critical transmission lines, thereby reducing generation costs. They are also investigating approaches to control the ever-increasing power demands and costs of computer server clusters, in ways that facilitate the integration of substantial wind and other clean energy generation.



BU engineering and MIT architectural faculty are developing a new framework for advanced sustainable buildings.

To optimize air flow rates and dramatically reduce energy consumption and costs, College of Engineering researchers have designed software that determines actual flow rates on a room-by-room basis by using the building automation system and measuring the system response. The information can be used to determine what reduced airflow rates could be used in each room while meeting its ventilation requirements. This ensures that building performance objectives are met while minimizing energy use for every space within a building. All without changing any equipment or requiring manual, room-by-room measurements.


We are proposing to build an advanced intelligence system on the building side of the meter that can monitor and control power consumption. — Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE)



Monitoring WMDs To detect the potential release of hazardous materials such as nuclear, biological or chemical agents, American cities typically deploy a small number of expensive, large sensors in strategic locations. Adopting a different strategy, College of Engineering researchers are designing a monitoring system that relies on a network of multiple, cheap, often mobile sensors. Their system could be used not only for material detection but also for intelligence gathering in remote locations. To maximize system performance, the researchers have devised strategies to keep sensors up and running, collecting data on potential threats and communicating across the network.

They’ve developed algorithms that do everything from routing information to preserve energy across the network, to optimizing sensor positions to maintain good coverage of areas of interest. The algorithms maximize area coverage and minimize energy consumption by using the fewest possible sensors to cover a designated space and directing them to strategic intersections of streets and building corridors. They also track each sensor location by reading the strength of a radio signal emanating from the sensor, and pinpoint the source of a harmful agent release based on multiple observations of increased concentration levels near the source.


We’ve developed algorithms that do everything from routing information to preserve energy across the network, to optimizing sensor positions to maintain good coverage of areas we’d like to monitor. — Professor Ioannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE)

The sensor network envisioned by the College of Engineering researchers would be able to detect the transport of radiological material. BU College of Engineering


College of Engineering researchers have developed a novel statistical technique to identify and locate pixel-level changes that depart from normal activity within a monitored scene—changes that could indicate potential security threats.

Pinpointing Suspicious Activities Each week more than 30 million surveillance cameras produce nearly 4 billion hours of video footage, far more than human analysts can process. Even where software is used to sift through the data for suspicious activity, the algorithms used are not always up to the task, especially in busy urban areas. Now College of Engineering researchers have devised a technique to process video data and pinpoint unusual events in cluttered urban environments that’s much faster and more reliable than conventional approaches. Rather than classify and track objects in a video stream, the new technique detects motion in video footage, computes motion statistics at each pixel across time


‘‘I don’t envision removing the human out of surveillance, but reducing the amount of human attention that’s needed. — Professor Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE)

and uses statistical methods to identify and locate anomalous pixels. Data collected on these anomalies can then be tracked via conventional software systems. In a related effort, College of Engineering researchers are also working to improve the accuracy of action recognition— the automatic detection and identification of animate actions, such as walking, jumping or waving, from camera-recorded digital video signals. They have developed a new framework for action recognition that consistently exceeds the performance of state-of-the-art methods and, due to low storage and computational requirements, is suitable for real-time use.



Preventing Disease, Cutting Costs Despite spending about $2 trillion annually on healthcare, the U.S. recently ranked lowest among 19 industrialized countries in its rate of preventable deaths. But medical experts believe that a more proactive, data-driven healthcare management strategy could yield dramatic improvements in health outcomes and significantly lower costs. To that end, College of Engineering researchers and their collaborators are pursuing a comprehensive and systematic approach to intelligently processing electronic health records and wireless body sensor data, and directing physician attention to preventing serious medical conditions.


What motivated us to start this project is the recognition that the US health care system is extremely inefficient as it is geared toward treating acute conditions. There are tremendous opportunities for preventing the occurrence of these conditions and the expensive hospitalizations they cause. — Professor Ioannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE)

The researchers plan to apply data mining and optimization techniques to records and data collected from Boston Medical Center, insurance claims and wireless, wearable sensors to produce algorithms that group patients based on their risk of developing an acute condition. The model would suggest targeted preventative actions for and responses to chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. In a related project, College of Engineering researchers are developing apps that remind patients of times to take prescribed drugs and of medical tests and screenings, and enable them to schedule medical appointments.



Screening Appointment

Complete Appointment

BU researchers are developing mobile apps that serve as personal health agents, reminding patients to attend medical appointments and take prescribed drugs.

The SNL serves as a platform for interdisciplinary

developing Smart City concepts and technologies may

urban sustainability research, innovation and

test them via the Sustainable Neighborhood Lab (SNL),

experiential education at several schools and colleges

a BU-organized living laboratory for enhancing urban

across Boston University, integrating environmental

sustainability and quality of life in cooperation with

science, systems and technology; human behavior;

Boston neighborhoods and nonprofits, commercial

finance and business; and policy and urban planning.

groups, the City of Boston and local utilities, and with

A major goal of the SNL is to advance a Smart City

support from companies such as IBM and Wells Fargo.

innovation ecosystem that leverages synergies

SNL enables researchers to test their ideas in real-

among academic, public and private sector partners. Toward that end, the SNL organized and hosted a

world scenarios and collect meaningful data to inform

conference in March on Smarter Cities that was co-

innovation aimed at improving quality of life in urban

sponsored by BU, IBM and the City of Boston, where

environments. For example, in collaboration with the

over 150 people gathered to explore next steps cities

SNL, College of Engineering researchers plan to test

can take to improve the quality of life for citizens.

the Smart Parking system with on-street parking, and

With Boston as the backdrop for the event, panelists

have investigated advanced energy technologies at

from all three entities discussed ways to improve the

Boston’s Lenox Hotel.

efficiency of cities using Big Data.

As a living laboratory at the neighborhood scale,

BU College of Engineering


College of Engineering researchers who are


R. Lutchen with City of College of Engineering Dean Kenneth Cities Conference, which Boston CIO Bill Oates at the Smarter SNL. was organized by the

Professors John Baillieul and Michael Caramanis (both ME, SE) explore ideas for advanced sustainable building design with Scot Hopps, director of Sustainability for Saunders Hotel Group & EcoLog ical Solutions, at the Lenox Hotel in Boston’s Back Bay neighb orhood.



College of Engineering Smart City research involves interdisciplinary collaborations with several organizations in academia, industry, government and the Greater Boston community.

Academia Boston University College of Engineering (ENG) College of Arts & Science (CAS) School of Management (SMG) School of Medicine (MED) School of Public Health (SPH) Metropolitan College (MET) Center for Information Systems and Engineering (CISE) Clean Energy and Environmental Sustainability Initiative (CEESI) Office of Technology Development Pardee Center for Study of the Longer-Range Future Sustainable Neighborhood Lab (SNL) Eleven other academic institutions

Industry Deutsche Telekom IBM Johnson Controls Lenox Hotel/Saunders Hotel Group National Grid NSTAR Raytheon BBN Technologies Streetline TRO$Jung|Brannen Wells Fargo

Government & Community City of Boston Madison Park Development Corporation Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay


Collaborating with experts in academia, government and industry, BU College of Engineering faculty are advancing several Smart City technologies (not all depicted in this brochure) while exploring their economic, environmental and public policy implications.


Faculty members shown here are developing data-driven systems to upgrade urban life in terms of communication, transportation, energy and the environment, security and healthcare. For more information, see


John Baillieul (ME, SE)

Associate Professor Prakash Ishwar (ECE, SE)




Michael Caramanis (ME, SE)

Mark Karpovsky (ECE)

Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE)

Nathan Phillips (ECE, SE)




Christos Cassandras (ECE, SE)

Janusz Konrad (ECE)

David Starobinski (ECE, SE)

Assistant Professor



Ayse Coskun (ECE)

Thomas Little (ECE, SE)

Ari Trachtenberg (ECE, SE)




Michael Gevelber (ME, MSE, SE)

Ioannis Paschalidis (ECE, SE)

M. Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME, MSE)

College of Engineering faculty affiliations include home departments—Biomedical Engineering (BME), Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) and Mechanical Engineering (ME), and divisions—Materials Science & Engineering (MSE) and Systems Engineering (SE).

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PAID Boston MA Permit No. 1839

44 Cummington Mall Boston, MA 02215 An equal opportunity, affirmative action institution.



What has emerged is the potential for Boston to become an iconic example of how publicprivate-academic partnerships can not only achieve smarter cities, but also sustain the innovations to keep them going. — Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen


Boston University College of Engineering research on creating the smarter city

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