How To Use Helium for Parking Sensors



One of the great oppor­tu­ni­ties of a ubiq­ui­tous wire­less net­work like Heli­um’s LoRaWAN is in mon­i­tor­ing park­ing. While park­ing may seem slight­ly less inter­est­ing than day-old oat­meal to most of us, the more you know about park­ing the more you won­der why we don’t pay far more atten­tion to it.

Let’s start with the busi­ness cas­es for it. Any giv­en city gov­ern­ment typ­i­cal­ly lays out var­i­ous types of park­ing options; 2 hour park­ing, 72 hour park­ing, 15 minute park­ing, com­mer­cial load­ing, taxis, etc. These are applied to a city lay­out in order to pro­mote the effi­cient use of street space and sup­port cit­i­zens and busi­ness­es as they go about their day. The city of San Diego has 55,000 park­ing spaces in down­town alone; that’s a lot of poten­tial data!

As a quick exam­ple, you might want 2 hour park­ing on most of the “main strip” of any giv­en small town, with spots for busi­ness­es to load or unload, taxis to pick­up, or peo­ple to have a reli­able place to leave their car when they run short errands like mail­ing a pack­age or buy­ing some­thing from a restaurant.

So far, so good, right? Think about the fol­low­ing three ques­tions: First, how do you know the cur­rent lay­out is work­ing? Sec­ond, how do you make sure peo­ple are fol­low­ing the rules? Third, how might you turn park­ing vio­la­tions into a sig­nif­i­cant prof­it cen­ter until cit­i­zens clean up their act?

Most cities in the US have very lit­tle “real time” idea of how cit­i­zens are park­ing. In one sense that’s great; I don’t real­ly want to be under con­stant park­ing sur­veil­lance. In anoth­er sense it’s one of the cra­zi­est things you can think of. We lit­er­al­ly build a city, hope we got it right, and mea­sure almost noth­ing to make sure. 

Imag­ine doing that in school! “Hey stu­dents, here’s a test where if you get an answer wrong you’re going to owe a small amount of mon­ey. I want you to take the test. When you’re fin­ished, crum­ple it up and throw it into the trash can from wher­ev­er you’re sit­ting. I’m going to take a nap while you take the test. If I wake up, I may try to catch some of the crum­pled up balls of paper that were your test when you throw them. If I catch any­thing, I’ll grade you on a few ran­dom answers. If you got them wrong, I’ll charge you. If I don’t look at your test then you pass.”

Why not just grade the test? Well, up until very recent­ly, “grad­ing the test” was very expen­sive and tech­ni­cal­ly difficult. 

Heli­um has changed half of that by mak­ing it easy for any­one to deploy a sen­sor mea­sur­ing park­ing wher­ev­er they want, and the world of sen­sor man­u­fac­tur­ers is spin­ning up pro­duc­tion to meet the bur­geon­ing demand. As we get to scale, prices begin to come down, and we get to actu­al­ly “grade the test.”

Of course, wait­ing to get to scale and for prices to come down and for local gov­ern­ment to embrace new tech­nol­o­gy isn’t a good for­mu­la for get­ting shit done, and GSD is my hap­py place, so…I went ahead and bought then deployed a few park­ing sensors. 

I’ll give you the bad news up front: Out of the 3 sen­sors I bought (they run just under $200 each when you’re buy­ing low vol­ume), 2 of them broke with­in a week or so from cars dri­ving over ’em. The com­pa­ny has acknowl­edged the prob­lem and is work­ing on a bet­ter enclo­sure, and will send me the upgrad­ed ver­sion when they’re ready. I’m cool with that; I expect things to break in these ear­ly days.

Now, those two were “sur­face mount”, mean­ing that they just fas­ten straight to the sur­face of a street, like this:

It’s not like the in-ground one is much larg­er, here are both types on my car­pet in the office:

So, what’s it like to install the in-ground one?

Ok, with that as the cur­rent state (1 work­ing, 2 bro­ken), what’s next? I’ll spend the next few weeks while I wait for the 2 replace­ments work­ing on how I want to visu­al­ize the data. Remem­ber, I want to give our city the abil­i­ty to “grade” how well park­ing is work­ing. I think it might look some­thing like this:

I could be wrong and they just want a bor­ing old spread­sheet, but let’s take a swing at the ele­phant in the room: 

A park­ing vio­la­tion here in San Diego runs about $53. A park­ing meter enforce­ment offi­cer (PMEO) earns $19.64/hour. Now, I’m not going to get into wage debates here, but it does­n’t take much more than a 5th grade edu­ca­tion to see that a PMEO who can quick­ly see where they should tick­et is, at least until peo­ple learn not to vio­late the park­ing signs willy-nil­ly, a prof­it center.

I know, I know, a cou­ple of you will be fuck­ing howlers and com­plain about your rights being infringed because you should­n’t have to live in an Orwellian state. That’s ridicu­lous, you know it, and all you have to do is fol­low the signs or vote in bet­ter rules. There is an entire­ly dif­fer­ent (and much stronger) case to be made that gov­ern­ments are fair­ly bad at spend­ing mon­ey, but for now, let’s just imag­ine we could improve things by gath­er­ing data.

Look, we’re get­ting clos­er to a world where more things are mea­sured, and in the mea­sur­ing the world gets ben­e­fits like mak­ing data-dri­ven deci­sions to improve an oper­a­tion. The jack­wag­on in the ’67 Camaro might have nice taste in old cars, but she does­n’t get to park 4 hours in a 15 minute zone with­out a con­se­quence. Oth­er peo­ple can use that space, busi­ness­es rely on traf­fic flow, and think­ing that the signs apply to every­one else but not you is a recipe for a world that is less fair and fun. 

Ok, so that’s how you might use data from street park­ing in a puni­tive way, how could a small busi­ness con­struc­tive­ly use a park­ing sen­sor to improve sales? 

One way is to indi­cate to cus­tomers that a park­ing slot in a spe­cif­ic area is free for them to use; that’s an easy Heli­um fix. If the park­ing space is occu­pied, there’s an inte­gra­tion that turns a light in front of the busi­ness red, to indi­cate park­ing ’round back is full. If the park­ing space is avail­able, the light is green. 

The busi­ness sends out emails and tells walk-in cus­tomers to look for the light, which is a fun sto­ry to tell and lets cus­tomers know that the busi­ness cares about ’em and is will­ing to explore cut­ting edge tech­nol­o­gy. As more peo­ple are able to park and walk in and spend, the busi­ness gen­er­ates more prof­it by pro­vid­ing a bet­ter expe­ri­ences. Win­ning all ’round!

Now, these are just 2 options to explore in the world of just park­ing sen­sors; imag­ine how much is left to devel­op across the entire IoT space?! I’d love to hear how you think YOU might use IoT in your busi­ness, whether it’s park­ing sen­sors, cold chain mon­i­tor­ing, buoy track­ing, or count­ing how many peo­ple walk by the front door ver­sus come inside to track how your sig­nage is working.

The pos­si­bil­i­ties for explo­ration and improve­ment are damn near end­less, I can’t wait to hear how you’re using ’em!

Rock on!


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