Where Does One Go to Test Smart Products? Here is a Peach of an Idea, Try the Silicon Orchard | SPONSORED
One of my mentors had a saying, “Remember, everything works in a beaker, Gregory.” The first time he told me this, I laughed with that naive exuberance that only a fresh out of college engineer and scientist who is ready to take the world by storm, can muster. His words soon rang all too true and have stuck with me through the years and careers.
The concept does transcend the world of chemistry, though, to all product and process development arenas. Simply replace “beaker” with laboratory, shop, cocktail napkin, test track, and the challenge of scaling an invention to a market-ready state still holds. How do the inventors and innovators of the world navigate this leap from concept, to prototype to a working product? The path can be tricky indeed.
The technological nuances of the idea are one aspect to conquer. However, finding an environment in which to assess, refine, and ultimately perfect a product is another challenge altogether. The first automobiles had to juggle the details of controlled manual navigation across a myriad of conditions and pathways, most of which were a far cry from the established highways and byways of the 20th and 21st centuries. So, when considering technology as sophisticated as an autonomous vehicle, where does one find a proving ground for such a complex system of systems?
This question got me thinking about smart cities; what makes them smart, and where do the organizations that are developing products and technologies go to traverse that chasm between beaker and production line: i.e. Where does one go to test smart city products and innovations in a real-world environment before leaping to full-scale implementation? One very appealing option is Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners, Georgia. More about What Is a Smart City Platform?
The Back Story
Established as a city about a decade ago, Peachtree Corners boasts some impressive statistics. Weighing in currently with 45,000 residents and a corresponding 45,000 jobs, the city is a strong regional employment hub for the Metro Atlanta area. The Hayes Modem as well as the color printer were invented there. Scientific Atlanta (now a part of Cisco) was also founded in Peachtree Corners. Peachtree Corners’ struggles early on, with building vacancy rates of ~23 percent in the city and almost 30 percent for the tech park (which would eventually be the home for Curiosity Lab), catalyzed the city team to act. As a result, the team placed an unprecedented focus on economic development that would embrace both innovation and growth. The focus is paying off, as the team has decreased the vacancy rate to just over 10 percent as a direct result of creating Curiosity Lab.
Leveraging the public infrastructure owned by the city was a key to creating a purpose-built environment for long-term testing of Smart City technology. As a public agency, the city could operate and regulate the environment, in a streamlined fashion. This elimination of red tape enabled them to modify and develop an environment where testing could occur in real-world conditions. The team, led by City Manager, Brian Johnson, and the Assistant City Manager and Chief Technology Officer, Brandon Branham, realized early on, that obtaining buy-in from the elected body was paramount to success. Without this support, the technological renaissance the group envisioned would likely not succeed.
As the officials at the time realized the opportunity as well and shared a vision toward the growing importance of autonomous vehicles and smart city technologies, the social license they were seeking was granted, and the team was given a $5M budget to go forth and make Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners a reality.
Curiosity Lab opened to the public for business in July 2019. Despite the pandemic in 2020, 30 companies engaged with Curiosity Lab that year to conduct testing and use their facilities. Additionally, three corporations relocated to Peachtree Corners: ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers); Brightree, a medical home device company; and Intuitive Surgical, which chose Peachtree corners for their East Coast headquarters. Silicon Orchard, as many are starting to refer to the city, seems an appropriate moniker, as Curiosity Lab and the proving grounds continue to gain momentum, in terms of enabling innovation and growth for smart city technology.
The Proving Grounds
The roadways of the proving ground corridor were redesigned to incorporate outside lanes for advanced autonomous vehicle testing. Through a partnership with T-Mobile, the city offers full spectrum 5G (low, medium, and high band) as well as Wi-Fi access across the entire test corridor giving IIoT devices a robust and broad-spectrum to access for data transmission.
OVHcloud US, a boutique player in cloud storage for IoT devices, is also fully engaged in both their internal research and development as well as collaboration with other organizations working at Curiosity Lab. The corridor also offers variable topography and road configurations including a 13 percent grade hill, which can pose a challenge for autonomous vehicles to navigate.
The proving ground offers the opportunity for edge device development and optimization. In addition to their product testing, Bosch has collaborated with the team at Peachtree Corners to equip the testing grounds with their edge cameras and sensor arrays. LiDAR systems are also installed throughout the corridor to fully monitor traffic flow patterns and activity. Further, the team at Peachtree Corners ran dedicated fiber within the corridor to separate activities there and at Curiosity Lab from the city’s other activities.
For Beep, a startup focused on delivering autonomous mobility, the capabilities at Peachtree Corners’ Curiosity Lab were exactly what they were seeking. They needed real-world conditions that incorporate interaction with other traffic, access to 5G, LiDAR, and a community willing to engage and use the technology.
With a mission statement, “We provide the intelligence which enables safe, stress-free, eco-friendly, driverless mobility,” Peachtree Corners’ Curiosity Lab and proving grounds checked all the boxes the group was seeking from a technical perspective. Beep currently operates three autonomous shuttles that provide transportation to the community while simultaneously fulfilling Beep’s R&D initiatives.
Branham offered some insight into the next phase for Peachtree Corners. For the near term, the focus is to: grow existing and develop new corporate relationships to drive economic development. In parallel, Branham and the team plan to extend the autonomous vehicle track to connect to the highway system. This will allow the campus to link to Peachtree Corners downtown (~1.5 miles away from the technology park and existing proving grounds corridor). This will connect the two full-service conference hotels on campus to downtown. Transportation needs for guests staying at the hotels will be fulfilled by the three Beep purpose build shuttles.
The city plans to leverage the technology at Curiosity Lab and the expertise of the Industry Partners to drive technology adoption and use in the consumer side of the city’s commercial members. The opportunity to drive growth and optimization through retail analytics, outdoor & indoor video analytics, and integration into commercial kiosks is one initiative. Community messaging is another, to drive residential engagement and sales into the stores. A third area the team is looking toward strengthening and expanding is the relationship with their utility and current partner, Georgia Power.
“Streetlights are a large part of the smart city ecosystem, and they own all the streetlights,” Branham stated. These assets represent a huge opportunity for the IIoT to play an even greater role in smart city digitalization; not only through optimization but also through the myriad of technologies that can be coupled and deployed with these numerous assets that populate the cityscape.
The technology available at Peachtree Corners Curiosity Lab is impressive. I have only touched on a few of the organizations currently engaged at Peachtree Corners, yet the common thread I heard from every corporate ambassador with whom I spoke was how much they valued the collaborative nature of the ecosystem that Branham and Johnson created. There is a camaraderie present at Peachtree Corners that perhaps can be attributed to southern charm; however, it is a bit deeper than that. Having access across the room to such a diversity of experts who are willing to share knowledge holds tremendous value. The fact that the city does not charge property tax and is the second-largest city in Georgia to not do so, is also an enticing attribute for companies looking to relocate or take root in a community.
What makes Peachtree Corners’ Curiosity Lab work? The people, the passion, and the unified desire to catalyze, enable, and foster innovation & collaboration that drives prosperity. Whether your organization is seeking a place to evaluate a new product or perhaps searching for a community in which to take root and call home; consider taking a trip down to Peachtree Corners and see for yourself what the Silicon Orchard has to offer.
The post is sponsored by Peachtree Corners