SAN FRANCISCO – When you’re wandering down the street, eyes firmly glued to your smartphone, tripping or bumping into things is an annoying reality. Now think about what could happen if you’re on a construction site, with heavy equipment and other hazards at every turn, where a distraction like a phone could be fatal.
Jason Lee has a passion for safety. As CEO of Ottawa-based SmartCone Technologies Inc., he firmly believes that apps are not the way to go; when you’re looking at your phone, you are not aware of your surroundings.
SmartCone‘s job is to help you stay alive and safe. It’s an IoT device – or, more correctly, a mesh network of devices – that contains the necessary sensors to detect hazards and alert people to them. And at IBM Think, the company announced a partnership with IBM that sees it integrating IBM Maximo Worker Insights into its system. The two companies previously signed a Joint Initiative Agreement in 2017 to advance safety products and services, at the same time announcing that SmartCone would integrate with the Watson IoT platform.
A SmartCone (which is actually a cylinder, but Lee felt that the name SmartTube sounded more like a skin cream) contains any number of sensors – video cameras, motion sensors, LIDAR, seismic, windspeed, gas detectors, air quality detectors, temperature sensors, and more – along with its networking hardware. A solar-powered option is available.
Once it detects a designated hazard, the SmartCone generates alerts via appropriate means. For example, in a pilot bike lane safety project in Ottawa, flashing lights alert motorists that cyclists are approaching. In North Dakota, the state department of transportation and Salander Technology Services uses SmartCones to detect approaching autonomous buses and in response flashes lights, plays an audio message, and posts a message on a traffic sign to make sure pedestrians are aware of the vehicle. In other situations, prerecorded sounds ranging from sirens to voice messages may work better, and in others (perhaps for flagging the presence of people in a work area to a heavy equipment operator whose visibility is limited), a vibrating wristband may be the best solution. It’s all configurable.
In the mesh network, one cone communicates with the cloud (if it goes down, another automatically assumes the task), allowing data uploads for later analytics, or for near real-time notifications of situations to safety officers or supervisors.
The applications for the edge-based technology are endless. Telcos can use it to set up a “no-go” zone around fibre cables to prevent backhoes from accidentally severing them, for example, or they can be used to alert equipment operators to gas lines when they can’t see the demarcations from their vehicles.
“Simply take a SmartCone that uses proximity sensors and motion sensors on a 35-foot bubble, drop it into place, and the thing automatically does its job. No configuration required, takes seconds to deploy, and saves a huge amount of time. Just that simple use case can save lives,” Lee noted. “There’s no gas explosion.”
Although the company had been doing well, Lee said things really took off around 2015, when the company put up a simple brochureware web site. Until then, he’d been building edge-based IoT systems (before it was even called IoT) for the U.S. military, but when the site went up, it piqued a lot of interest.
“Organizations like Department of Transportation called us, large energy companies called us and said, ‘Hey, this is the missing link. You know, the world is focusing on cloud, we need real-time processing on the edge for safety solutions, security, and things like this. And that’s what you guys have.’ And so they started calling us the missing link,” he said. “It’s when we actually registered the name SmartCone and created this company. And we’ve been just a whirlwind of growth ever since. It’s been amazing, actually.”
Even though SmartCone sells globally and now has a U.S. subsidiary, Lee has no interest in leaving the country.
“We’re Canadian, and I’m proud to be Canadian,” he said. “Canadians are innovative, very clever, we can have technology that leads the world. We don’t have to sell out every time we turn around. It’s hard to stay in Canada, because the money is not the same as it is in the U.S., but last year, we received well over half a million dollars in government support, which is amazing. Industry Canada has identified SmartCone and is helping us in every way possible, which is just amazing. And then we share that story with all of our international clients, and they love that. And then they have a new appreciation for the Canadian government and Canada’s commitment to innovative technologies.”