Jumpstarter tech demos in peachy keen Georgia city

The city of Peachtree Corners in Georgia and its Curiosity Lab innovation center tell the world the smart city movement is alive and kicking, even if the work has never been more tedious or laden with bureaucracy and hard to explain to outsiders and non-techies.

After more than a decade of smart city fits and starts around the country, the city of 50,000 residents and just as many workers (located 20 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta) has brought together a happy gang of true tech innovation champions, including city staff and its elected mayor and council, alongside a gung-ho! willingness to try new tech.

On a quick recent Fierce Electronics visit to Curiosity Lab, just down the tree-lined street from City Hall, the 25,000 square foot facility is crammed with workstations for different startups from across the globe. There are circuit boards and wires and electronic this and that gathered in logical piles—not neat, but functional. Over here, a dog-type robot is sprawled on the floor.

 Over there, a gaping 18-inch pipe is reaching inside the building to do something new and amazing in coming months. (Secrets to be revealed, a staffer explains) Startup SkyMul’s team is in the the midst of developing drones that can wire rebar together into grids for use in construction projects.

City CTO Brandon Branham is smiling again as he shows visitors around the facility, working from T-Mobile’s slick executive briefing center in-house to a command center with dozens of displays showing views of city intersections and parking areas. Another building nearby is being readied to double the lab’s size to handle growing demand.  It is the spirit of innovation that Branham represents, even as he also brings the tech chops to know what works or what doesn’t. Engineers try things, and sometimes they don’t work out, and then they move on.

In one example, Branham recounts how a few pedestrians had tripped over those six-inch diameter electronic pucks installed to lie nearly flat on the asphalt in the center of parking spaces. The city removed the pucks and erected camera sensors to monitor 1,000 spaces, including a multi-level garage, so that drivers would know where open spaces are located. It’s a common initiative in many cities these days, but Bosch, Cradlepoint and others have worked with Peachtree Corners to install high def camera sensors with edge processing ability to limit the need to rely entirely on a cloud infrastructure. Workers and residents can go to the city’s website to see where open parking spaces are located. The sensing technology is now in place to, potentially, add other functions as the world sorts out the dimensions of future AI.

One of the long-term initiatives underway in the city involves erecting cameras, lidar and radar at intersections to cut down on pedestrian fatalities while still accommodating busy thoroughfares. Many of the sensors work via C-V2X boxes at roadside to warn vehicles to slow down for a pedestrian or a potential danger, but the chicken-and- egg question remains which carmakers will install the needed receivers and intelligence in future vehicles.  Branham drives a demonstration vehicle that includes a small device next to the rearview mirror that can monitor the driver’s alertness via a camera. A display  and audible beeps indicate hazards. The display also shows icons to indicate green and red lights ahead on the busy Technology Parkway where speeding has been a concern and will be even moreso as bike trails expand.

A recent concern of the tech, Branham notes, is whether drivers will pay attention to alerts amid the hubbub of driving with pets and children in the rear seats, or even while monitoring their own smartphones.

The Vision Zero challenge

Cities everywhere have tried for years to adhere to a Vision Zero strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, but Branham is a realist and agrees the zero goal is just that. “Focus on what’s posslble. You need a place to start,” he says.  Peachtree Corners has been testing one information kiosk at a central intersection for a year and plans to expand it to dozens of other intersections.  Part of the test has been to discover which content users find most important, but safety advisories seem to be a part.One idea is to offer updates for an autonomous shuttle running along a fixed route.

Traffic management systems to handle busy thoroughfares are gathering more followers in government and transportation agencies, partly because traffic deaths in the US rose dramatically in 2020 and 2021, then declined slightly in 2022.  To help, US DoT just announced $1 billion in grants to localities to prevent traffic deaths and serious injury, with the funds designed to support planning and infrastructure.

In related fashion, the city’s safety has been enhanced through use of license plate reader technology from Flock Safety, Branham says, including its use in solving two homicides in recent years. Part of his job is find and evaluate such tech, sometimes in surprising corners of the global tech community.

He operates in rarified air with a supportive government that not every city provides. “It takes bold action of your elected body or it won’t work,” he says. “You need champions. Some technology may not work in every community.”

Peachtree Corners Mayor Mike Mason tells Fierce Electronics he has been re-elected to three four-year terms partly because his community is open to new tech and new ideas, a philosophy not always evident elsewhere.  “Nobody’s here to tell us not to do it,” he defers.

Curiosity Lab runs on a budget of about $500,000 a year and relies on infrastructure valued at more than $6 million, including its innovation labs and classrooms.  Peachtree Corners doesn’t draw revenues from a property tax from residents, but there are business taxes, including a dedicated sales tax used for transportation and related needs.

A big focus of the tech innovations and demonstration projects is on attracting economic development to the town as it sits in an expanding tech-savvy region.  “You do have to show ROI and be about economic development…job creation and expansion,” Branham advises.

 It is also essential to continually educate residents and businesses in town and even to find simple projects that show value in a straightforward manner, like installing trash cans that wirelessly report when sensors indicate they are full to reduce the need for repeated pickups by city workers.

“It’s about finding what matters,” he says.

RELATED: Canada’s Project Arrow parades down Georgia tech street in EV challenge