Region’s smart assets and innovations showcased at cleantech cluster gathering

Research Triangle Region, N.C. – It’s the stuff of futuristic sci-fi movies, but it’s happening right now in the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina.

Tiny, self-driving vehicles under development by engineer entrepreneurs at N.C. State University run on elevated monorail-type lines that offer the slim footprint of a bike lane with the broad potential to revolutionize transportation.

A SAS and Sensus technology-enabled water system in Cary remotely monitors residents’ water usage and sends them text alerts when their water usage spikes.

Wide bandgap semiconductors being commercialized and marketed by the new Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute power everything from laptops to power generators with a fraction of the heat and component size of silicon-based power electronics (Think towering high-voltage power lines reduced to the size of a small storage unit.).

The Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster (RTCC) unveiled these and other innovations June 24 at its cluster-wide meeting, “Building Smart Cities through Smart Energy, Transportation and Water.”

The event convened regional business, government and academic leaders working in the cleantech space to showcase how innovations being developed in the region converge to create the infrastructure, products and services necessary to develop and power “smart cities.”

“We have the perfect mix of companies if you want to put together a cleantech cluster and have a major focus on smart grid, smart transportation and smart water,” said RTCC Chairman Ed White, who is chairman and CEO of Field2Base Inc.

The pace of innovation in connected devices is revolutionizing our world in the same way the assembly line transformed manufacturing and launched the Industrial Age, said Wes Sylvester, North America Internet of Things sales leader for Cisco Systems Inc.

“We think the Internet of Things is the next Industrial Revolution. It will change the way we live, work, play and learn,” he said.

Sylvester described how Cisco Systems is helping communities transform their public services and physical infrastructures – traffic, parking, street lighting, water and safety – using information technology.

“Sustainability is no longer an option,” he said. “If you are not building a sustainable city, it’s not a place where people will want to be.”

Cisco’s City Infrastructure Management Framework enables communities to invest in infrastructure that solves one issue then leverage that investment for other services.

Town of Cary Finance Director Karen Mills described the impact of her city’s first step in the smart city direction with a smart water metering infrastructure for 65,000 customers.

Among the system’s benefits are lower costs – the city’s initial investment of $18 million is expected to save $28 million over 17 years, which will lower rates – and big data, she said.

Analytics on water usage and production enables the city to remotely manage their water system, detect leaks and respond more quickly, and alert customers of their water usage and spikes, such as when pipes burst while they are away. Customers can even access and analyze their own usage data online.

Marshall Brain and Seth Hollar, co-inventors of the ecoPRT, shared their vision-in-the-making for a privately funded transit system that would start on N.C. State’s campus and extend outward by enticing nearby shopping and residential centers to build and connect their own lines to connect customers.

The world’s first entrepreneurial transportation system would expand with market forces, rather than government, Brain said. Among its benefits are lower upfront costs ($1 million per mile vs. $100 million per mile for light rail), small footprint (its three-foot-wide elevated line can be installed virtually anywhere along and over existing thoroughfares) and easy installation (lines can be easily repositioned, as needed).

All of the world’s pressing challenges of sustainability come down to energy, said John Muth, chief technology officer of the Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute.

Muth described how his new federally funded center at N.C. State is working to enable the next generation of energy-efficient, high-power electronic chips and devices by making wide bandgap semiconductor technologies cost-competitive with current silicon-based power electronics.

These improvements will make power electronic devices – motors, consumer electronics and devices that support the power grid – faster, smaller and more energy efficient.

Matt Zafuto, executive vice president of corporate strategy and business development for Sensus, reminded the group that “all of these innovations happened through collaboration with other entities. None of them happened in a vacuum. That’s exactly why we brought together the cleantech cluster a few years ago.”

Zafuto urged innovative companies working in industries that can connect and accelerate cleantech innovation to join the cluster.

“If you’re here thinking about joining the cleantech cluster,” Zafuto said, “stop thinking about it and start joining. What’s happening here is real. We’re still in the early stages of it, but it’s an exciting wave that’s going to take place here. Be a part of it.”

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