Wider adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) and smart city technologies will be vital to providing more efficient public services in the face of booming populations and dwindling budgets. [See also: 11 best uses of drones in business]

That is the view of Darryl Salmons, chief information officer at Amey - a company which provides infrastructure support services to councils and other government bodies, such as road and rail maintenance, facilities management and waste collection. See also: 12 best uses of IoT in the enterprise.

Salmons says that while IoT and smart cities have been hyped for more than a decade, the underlying technologies have only now matured to the point where they are being demanded by its public and regulated industry customers.

“They [public sector customers] are now ringing up and saying ‘we need to be able to deliver all of the smart city stuff that people have been talking about’, and the reason is that they have been driven by these efficiency needs,” he told delegates at the CIO Summit in London last week.

“They need to provide a better service to their end user - citizens - they are under pressure to drive down costs, they have to deliver efficiencies.

“That ‘we don’t want a smart city’ is changing and customers are looking for this.”

Salmons explained that the change in attitude is because the IoT has become more tangible, with large service providers such as CSC and IBM coming on board, while underlying technologies have become more accessible.

“What is happening is that all the different pieces are coming together: technology is becoming efficient, data analytics and software have matured, the cost of sensors is dropping – internet connected sensors cost peanuts,” he said.

“A number of things are converging at the same time.”

IoT and smart cities: Driving efficiencies at Amey

Salmons said that internet-connected devices are already helping drive down costs at Amey, as it moves away from manual processes that haven’t changed in almost a hundred years to using digital tools.

“In the olden days, potholes were filled in by guys with a manual worksheet. It doesn’t happen like that now. Already it is dramatically changing. What happens now is that the team go into the depot in the morning, they have mobile devices and what that device tells them is that first [place to go to], because their route has already been pre-optimised. They can’t pick their own route," he said.

“They go to the pothole and they take a digital picture of the pothole, take another picture to show they have done it, that picture is sent back to base, and the next job pops up and the location.”

“Efficiency rockets upwards [after doing this]. Everything in this environment changes when you start to deploy the technology of the Internet of Things.”

Another example of using data more intelligently is where Amey provides sewer-cleaning services, allowing better planning of its operations.

People throw inappropriate things down the toilet. One thing they put down the toilet is nappies. Nappies are one of the worst offenders for causing blockages in the whole sewerage system," he said.

“If we can plot where people are likely to be having babies, you can actually work out where you are more likely to get blockages in the whole system, if you took all of the data, aggregated it. This is the kind of stuff that is happening now.”

IoT and smart cities: Drones and robots

In order to improve safety of its staff, Amey is also using unmanned vehicles as part of its operations, Salmons added.

“We are also using things like drones,” he said.

“We are very conscious of the safety of our employees. They do really dangerous things, going across motorways through three lanes of traffic.

“We have to go and inspect bridges in inaccessible places on the rail network. It is not quite as exciting as Homeland and taking out terrorists, but we do use drones for very valuable reasons, and also to protect the safety of  our employees.” 

And Salmons believes that the next “big wave” of innovation to reach public services will be smart machines.

“Robotics are going to change everything,” he said. For example, robots could be used in future as part of a response to a motorway accident.

“First of all, we have to investigate, which means sending humans into dangerous locations - the fast lane of a motorway is not where you want to be,” he said.

“But if we send a drone down the motorway to send back some visual images, [we can] identify a crash barrier that needs to be repaired, dispatch a team of robots to go and fix it, it is much safer and more efficient.”

He joked: “So I am not interested in BYOD - what really interests me is the day the first person brings their own robot to work - ‘bring your own robot’.”

Find your next job with techworld jobs