The city’s longstanding battle with ear-splitting irritants could be getting a new weapon as a pilot project looks to test a network of real-time noise monitors that could flag disturbers of the peace at the speed of sound.
For years, the city has struggled to put a damper on the din from festivals, construction and vehicles, relying primarily on complaint-driven enforcement of its noise bylaw.
Noise is a popular beef among callers to the city’s 311 call centre, who have logged 3,076 complaints so far in 2018.
But thanks to a technology called LoRaWAN — a long-range, low power digital wireless network which now reaches every corner of Calgary — city IT planners are hoping to harness its potential in a number of areas.
Nan Xie, the city’s IT leader, said it’s still early but the possible applications of the powerful city-wide network are far-reaching.
“We are all getting very excited — it’s an evolving process,” said Xie, noting the city reached out to the University of Calgary to propose potential applications for the technology.
“We posed a challenge to the University of Calgary and told them we needed ideas.”
They didn’t disappoint.
Among the most promising proposals was one offered by Henry Leung, head of the robotics and sensor networks group at the Schulich School of Engineering, who looked at similar applications used in New York City and Paris, employing much pricier and resource-heavy Wi-Fi and live-streaming technology.
Leung said the city’s expansive LoRaWAN network, which has made it a world leader for the technology, made the notion much more efficient, and significantly cheaper.
“The advantage of this network is it has long range and low power consumption and it doesn’t transfer too much data,” he said, noting every sensor box tied to the network operates on a simple, replaceable battery.
“We came up with a special type acoustic sensor that could precisely determine noise levels in the city.”
In September, the technology was given a dry run at Calgary’s Circle Carnival festival at Shaw Millennium Park, with one sensor located on the event site and another on the north side of the Bow River, a residential area that’s complained about festival noise in the past.
Leung said the sensors found noise levels across the river didn’t exceed the city’s daytime limit of 65 decibels, about the level of a normal conversation, or 50 dBA at night, equivalent to the sound of a running refrigerator.
Beyond the ability of measuring spikes in noise levels, Leung said his team is looking to build in the ability to categorize the types of sounds captured, building a catalog of sounds including traffic, construction, drag racing and even gunshots, while being able to accurately determine its time and location.
Leung said that could have broader applications for police investigations, and there have already been conversations with police brass about the technology.
“We can have a noise network for the whole city,” he said, noting the sensors also have the ability to expand their suite of tools.
“We’re hoping to put air quality monitors in there as well. The acoustic sensors are just one part but we could also put in other sensors.”
City IT leader Xie said the next step will see noise sensors employed on a limited basis again next summer to get more data while they await approval on a budget request before council to broaden that project, as well as building on previous pilot projects using the same technology on golf courses to measure pace of play, and downtown’s indoor Devonian Gardens to monitor climate and soil conditions.
“We’re preparing to test the technology next year at two major musical events,” Xie said, adding the sensors would also be able to notify event organizers if noise limits are breached.
“Our bylaw partners also have some very concrete ideas.”
The Beltline’s 17th Avenue stretch has long been a point of concern for both residents and city councillors, and Xie said the city’s community standards department is looking at the potential of setting up noise meters on the busy thoroughfare.
In 2012, the city launched a pilot project using a so-called noise snare device to target headache-inducing vehicles, but abandoned it a few months later after determining its findings were deemed to be inadmissible in a court challenge.
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