To Cisco-backed Sensity, lights are just IoT waiting to happen

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Cisco Systems is tightening its relationship with Sensity Systems, a Silicon Valley startup that wants buildings and cities now adopting LED lighting to embrace the Internet of Things.

Sensity makes sensors and computers designed to be integrated with LED lights that can go into existing outdoor light fixtures. With Sensity’s gear, the fixtures can do more than light up the streets and parking lots where they’re installed. Its cameras, thermometers and other sensors can tell a lot of stories about what’s going on under the lights. Parking, security and pedestrian traffic are key applications.

As lighting owners move to LED to save energy, Sensity wants to usher them into the age of IoT and data analysis. It estimates there are about 4 billion outdoor light fixtures around the world and most will be converted to LED over the next 10 to 15 years.

“It’s essentially a Trojan horse,” Sensity CEO Hugh Martin said.

What customers get out of it is that they can deploy IoT without investing in new devices and installing them around their facilities. That could be a way around one of the biggest challenges in IoT, which by its nature involves lots of widely distributed network endpoints. Putting those up and connecting them to power and the Internet can be complicated and expensive.

Cisco, the biggest network builder of all, is taking notice. It already resells Sensity’s gear, and now Cisco Investments is the lead investor in a $36 million round of funding for the company. There are other contributors such as GE Ventures and lighting company Acuity Brands, and Cisco won’t say how much of the money it put in. But the networking behemoth is known for acquiring startups it’s previously invested in, so the companies may get even more cozy in the future.

Sensity’s basic NetSense platform includes a Wi-Fi radio and sensors for ambient light, temperature, acceleration and motion. It can also be equipped with a video camera for security or tasks like parked-car detection. The unit also has enough computing power and storage to handle tasks like monitoring parking spaces without having to send data to the cloud, Martin said. The NetSense modules form a local Wi-Fi network.

Like Cisco, Sensity puts some analytics at the edge. In the parking scenario, the NetSense module in each light fixture captures video of the parking spaces nearby, interprets it, and reports to the cloud which spaces are taken or available. That’s a lot faster and less bandwidth-intensive than sending all the video it’s capturing of the parking spaces, Martin said.

Here are some other applications in use or under development: Detecting whether dumpsters are full, measuring winds through light-pole vibration, locating the source of gunshots through vibration sensing and triangulation, and detecting cloud cover through the ambient light sensor. That last application could help electric utilities predict when they’ll have to switch on turbines to make up for a drop in solar energy production.

The Wi-Fi radios can also collect information, such as data on how many people who are walking by a store actually go in. It does that by detecting the Wi-Fi signals coming from their phones. NetSense can even tell how long people spend in the store, as long as it can detect a unique identifier for those customers. Sensity’s guidelines for developers say they should make customers opt in to that feature, Martin said.

Sensity makes some lighting gear itself, but mainly it gets its gear built into modules made by companies like Acuity. It also makes money by charging developers for access to the data in its cloud that’s sourced from the NetSense endpoints. The company has more than 20 customers, including Simon Property Group, which is deploying NetSense in all of its more than 350 malls across the U.S., Martin said. It’s also involved in smart-city trials in Chicago, Bangalore and other locations.

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