Intelligent transportation system provider Q-Free has been working in the transportation management market for the past 30 years. Based in Norway, the global company plans to roll out a new parking IoT product this fall. According to an INRIX study published in USA Today, American drivers spend 17 hours a year searching for parking spots and a whopping $20 billion annually in garage fees, parking tickets, and fuel burned while searching for a spot. Silicon Labs recently had the chance to sit down with Q-Free Project Manager, Brage Blekken, to hear more about the new sensor parking product.
So for people not familiar with Q-Free, can you give us a brief overview of the company?
Q-Free delivers a broad portfolio of intelligent transportation systems for the global market. Our systems include solutions for electronic road tolling (DSRC systems), vehicle counters and classifiers, traffic control and surveillance technologies, and parking management solutions. Our product installations can be found in more than 20 countries around the world.
How did the company get started?
Our company started in the eighties after building electronic toll collection technologies in Norway. Since then, we have greatly expanded our product offering to include numerous intelligent transportation technologies, with recent expansions into Europe, Asia, South America, and we are now entering North America. We’ve built some of the largest nationwide road tolling systems found in the world today.
Can you tell us a little bit about your parking sensor technology?
We actually used technology from our toll road technology products and applied it to our parking sensors. Over the past five years, we’ve been offering indoor parking technology, which are systems you find in indoor parking lots, such as shopping malls. These systems hang over the parking space to detect, track, and monitor parked cars.
Now what is the IoT parking technology you are planning to launch later this year? How does it work?
Our new smart parking sensor product helps users find parking spots on the street level by using wireless technology. Most people don’t know this, but typically 20 percent of the traffic on the roads in an urban area is generated from people looking for parking spots. So our product is essentially removing excess traffic off the roads, which is Q-Free’s primary mission as a company – remove the Q’s (vehicle flow), or the excess traffic flow on the road.
The product uses radar-based technology to sense with 99% accuracy whether a vehicle is present in a parking space. The sensor transmits the information regarding parking space availability using Narrow Band (NB) IoT communications, which can be sent to a variety of outputs, such as Variable Message Signs located near the parking site, and it can also go straight to end-users through websites or mobile phone applications. The neat thing about NB-IoT is it allows everyday objects to have Internet connectivity to communicate their status and needs with end users.
Is there a product like this on the market right now already?
The parking sensors currently out there today have an accuracy limitation, which can negatively impact a person’s parking experience. Our new parking NB-IoT product greatly improves the accuracy of the parking guidance for users. We also have a rock solid dual communication interface, which is a real edge for us because it gives sensors the ability to communicate directly over the existing 4G telecom networks or proprietary ISM radio whenever needed. The NB-IoT product uses existing communication infrastructure, which will be a huge step in the right direction towards realizing next generation smarter city connectivity.
What Silicon Labs product is used in this product?
The Silicon Labs EZR32 Wonder Gecko MCU is used for both sensing and wireless communication.
What kind of design challenges did you have when creating the product?
The combination of the high accuracy components with extreme low power consumption was our primary challenge when building this product.
The sensor is expected to live for a minimum of 10 years without swapping batteries. This means we cannot afford to use more than a few microamperes on average while maintaining the high performance data link and intensive signal processing required to operate the radar circuits.
We also have been an early adopter of the NB-IoT standard. Since last autumn, one of the world’s first live mobile networks was built right outside of our headquarters in Trondheim, Norway. I’ll say that was a truly exciting moment when this ultra-low power sensor got access to the powerful 4G network using no more battery resources than a normal Bluetooth connection would have required.
Can you tell us why you picked Silicon Labs as the supplier?
The main challenges for us in building this product were related to extreme low power consumption. Silicon Labs is one of the top players in the world for low power electronics, and also wireless communications components. That’s the main reason we selected Silicon Labs, you have the top solutions for our specific design challenges that help us design the right product for the market.
Where do you see IoT in the next 5-8 years?
Look at Internet access on cell phones – everyone has it now, though that was not the case 5 or 10 years ago. I think IoT will definitely go the same way as mobile phones - everything in our lives will all be connected to the Internet. And people will not be thinking about the technology behind it, they will just expect it to be there.
That means that we as solution providers need to converge towards standards for wireless IoT connectivity, which ensures easy interoperability between devices and online services. My bet is that the new low power IoT standards, NB-IoT and LTE Cat M1, which right now are being released into existing 4G and the upcoming 5G networks, will be one of the standardized ways to connect our devices to the Internet.