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ST Engineering taps emerging tech to build smarter cities

The defence and engineering group stays one step ahead of the game.

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Mr Chew said that ST Engineering is riding on the rise of autonomous vehicles such as autonomous shuttles and buses, so that these services are adopted by the broader community.

ARTIFICIAL intelligence, autonomous vehicles (AVs) and smart sensors - these are just a few of the cutting-edge technologies that ST Engineering is making full use of when it comes to the complicated business of building smart cities.

The 52-year-old defence and engineering group has vast experience in helping city planners come up with smart mobility, and environmental and security solutions. It has completed over 500 smart city projects across more than 70 cities globally.

But even with a robust track record, ST Engineering isn't just sticking with the tried-and-tested route, chief marketing officer Chew Men Leong told The Business Times.

"Whether it's autonomous robots, data analytics, AI (or) cybersecurity, they are all evolving. I think it's important that we maintain not just a deep capability, but also get to be one step ahead of the evolution in the game, so that we can field the best set of technologies… and help cities actually transform," he said.

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To achieve this, ST Engineering is consistently investing in new technologies to enhance existing smart city solutions. Last year, it unveiled CitySense, the brand for its integrated Smart City solutions suite addressing the mega-trend of urbanisation. ST Engineering had then also announced that it will intensify its smart city expansion plans in the US, South-east Asia and the Middle East.

Beyond investing in its own capabilities, ST Engineering also recognises that innovation never happens in silos. Hence, the company has also opened itself up to collaborating with academic institutions and even startups, to act as an integrator of sorts in pooling the latest technologies.

"Our advantage is not just that we have the technology, but that we bring technologies in an integrated way to provide end-to-end solutions, and then apply them in a way that we are better able to customise… to meet what customers are looking for to solve particular challenges in their cities," Mr Chew said.

Need for speed

One of the most essential smart city solutions ST Engineering provides is traffic management. Given the rapid pace of urbanisation, many young cities find themselves struggling to cope with the boom in vehicles and road networks.

With its suite of urban transport solutions, ST Engineering helps city planners with common problems, such as managing bus fleets, developing e-payments systems for car parks and centralised traffic management systems.

But in more recent years, ST Engineering has also been beefing up its solutions with a dose of AI. For instance, in the event of a transport service disruption, AI capabilities built into the transport management system can provide recommendations to operators to guide traffic diversion.

This technology can also be applied to predictive maintenance, where technical faults are identified before the disruption even happens.

ST Engineering is also riding on the rise of AVs to build more cutting-edge smart mobility solutions. Specifically, autonomous shuttles and buses are where the company is investing significantly, so that these services are adopted by the broader community, Mr Chew explained.

In August this year, ST Engineering, the Ministry of Transport and Sentosa Development Corporation launched an autonomous shuttle service trial along a 5.7 km route in Sentosa. This is one significant step ST Engineering has made towards making AVs a reality, Mr Chew highlighted.

"The larger issue is really trying to… operate (AVs) in an environment where there is mixed traffic. We build systems to help the AVs connect to street infrastrucuture, so that they can get information ahead of time. The whole idea is to get the AVs to operate effectively, efficiently and safely within a mixed traffic environment," he explained.

If ST Engineering manages to do well with autonomous shuttles in Singapore, it could even bring the technology to foreign markets such as Japan and Israel, he added. It will be a long journey ahead, but ST Engineering is prepared for the ride.

"I think there's still some time to go (for AVs) to become viable and efficient for the first and last mile connecting needs of commuters," he said.

Sensing a city's pulse

Municipal services is another core area that ST Engineering helps city planners with. The company makes everyday infrastructure, such as street lights and water meters, "smart" by outfitting them with a multitude of Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices and sensors.

In fact, ST Engineering has deployed some 15 million sensors around the world, as part of its smart city projects.

"It helps with two key functions. One is that by deploying sensors, you have the ability to control these devices, especially lighting. You can make (the devices) more responsive to lighting conditions, make them on-demand and save energy," Mr Chew explained.

"The other function is that the sensors complete the picture of what is happening in the city - the weather, pollution levels or looking at traffic patterns, ultimately, pulling this back to a platform where we can have the information collated and determine what the trends are like. This helps officials optimise how they want to run the city," he added.

Street lights, in particular, present an "interesting opportunity" for the latter use case, given their ubiquity. In October last year, ST Engineering won a S$7.5 million tender, called for by government agency GovTech, to fit lamp posts here with sensors and cameras to collect a wide range of data.

With developments upcoming in 5G technology, the IoT element of ST Engineering's business is set for more exciting times. For one, 5G could enable more real-time processing of data by the sensors.

"(With) the deployment of IoT devices (such as) in the smart street lights… the transmission of information and processing will all actually change; it's going to be more real-time and also be able to handle much higher volume of data. It's easier for you to apply things like video analytics, almost on a real-time basis," he said.

Advancements in sensors with 5G would also feed back into ST Engineering's other smart city verticals, such as smart mobility with AVs. With 5G speeds, AVs will be better able to connect to street-side infrastructure and have better awareness of obstacles ahead. While it is still early days for 5G, ST Engineering is monitoring the space closely, Mr Chew said.

Open door for innovation

With rapid advancements in smart city technologies, ST Engineering keeps an open door to industry collaborations, so that it can pool the best-in-class innovations for comprehensive solutions.

For instance, the company has worked with universities to build corporate labs - one focused on robotics at Nanyang Technological University and another focused on cybersecurity at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

ST Engineering may set up a third corporate lab, possibly at its own premises and potentially looking at data analytics, Mr Chew said.

"The idea is not to go to the institution to form the corporate lab, but to bring them to us... so that they are immersed in our environment. Every day we are looking at problem statements and can shape the technology solutions towards that," he said.

And while being in the big boys' club, ST Engineering has also invested in promising startups through its corporate venture arm. Its portfolio companies include Israel-based SafeRide Technologies, which provides cybersecurity solutions for AVs, and local startup Azendian Solutions, which specialises in data analytics.

Big or small, all players innovating in smart city solutions have the same end-goal - making it logical to work together - Mr Chew emphasised.

"Ultimately, where does it all lead to? Quality of life - that's the bottom line. If there's a better quality of life, then the city becomes liveable and competitive, despite the fact that we are dealing with increased urbanisation," he said.