By April Shepherd, Editor, Council Magazine
Brimbank City Council, located in Melbourne’s western suburbs, is home to just under 200,000 locals – a considerable amount of residents to contribute to wear and tear on public assets like roads. So when a recent community survey revealed that many locals place the improvement of the region’s roads and roadside spaces as a top priority, Brimbank City Council joined forces with Swinburne University of Technology and Optus to create a smart IoT-powered solution.
Brimbank City Council manages over 900km of road network and 20,000 road signs, and receives over 7,000 reports of illegally dumped rubbish yearly – all of which require a member of Council, or the community, to identify and report for the required maintenance to be undertaken.
With an area this large to maintain, Brimbank – like many councils in Australia – is looking to adopt innovative digital solutions to manage these assets.
This need for digitisation and asset management, paired with a generous Federal Government grant valued at $1.18 million under the Australian 5G Innovation Initiative – created to help businesses develop 5G applications and products – gave birth to an innovative idea between Brimbank City Council, Swinburne University of Technology and Optus.
The 5G-based solution is a research project led by the Council, involving the fitting of high resolution stereo vision cameras and GPS sensors onto eleven waste collection trucks (some green, some general waste), which then go along their usual routes in the community, gathering data and information for Council to identify the location of maintenance issues such as illegal dumping and damage to road signs.
“The technology documents visual evidence of damaged signs, dumped rubbish and pin-points their exact location on a municipality map dashboard,” Brimbank City Council Mayor, Cr Jasmine Nguyen said.
The Council and University applied for the grant together, with the research project commencing in October 2021.
Director of Swinburne’s Factory of the Future and Digital Innovation Lab, Associate Professor Prem Prakash Jayaraman said, “The developed proof of concept has been operational since June this year, and we have been constantly reporting various asset issues to Brimbank via the system.”
One man’s trash: data is the new treasure
Although the work waste collection trucks do day-to-day is already pivotal in keeping the Brimbank community functioning, clean and safe –those fitted with the 5G capabilities are looking for data hidden amongst the rubbish.
The rich data captured from these connected trucks is sent in real time to a cloud-based system that creates a map of assets that require maintenance – such as road signs, bus shelters or damaged roads.
It is anticipated that once officially implemented, this map will reduce the time it takes Council to identify, document and fix issues. Resulting in potential savings to the annual costs associated with asset auditing.
Maintenance teams out on the road will also be able to receive information directly to the work tablet computers notifying them of assets in need of attention.
With more than 900km of road under maintenance and an estimated $15 to $20 million spent every year to maintain and improve road and roadside assets in Brimbank alone, it is hoped once this system is fully operational it will encourage other councils to consider alternative ways to enhance community services.
The big issues
In July 2022 the project passed a significant milestone, with the Artificial Intelligence (AI) needed to recognise issues in Council-owned assets, such as graffiti and damaged road signs, finally put into action.
“Our exciting project milestone shows evidence that AI can not only capture an image, but identify something that should not be there, such as graffiti on a sign or a mattress dumped roadside,” Mayor Nguyen said.
The 5G-fitted trucks can monitor and alert Council to numerous issues along the road and in the community, with Associate Professor Jayaraman explaining that three main goals for the project were identified at the beginning.
“The three focal points within the scope of the project that we started off with, was illegal dumping of rubbish on the nature strip, road signs that are often damaged for various reasons and how these can be picked up automatically by our system, and the last one was the condition of bus shelters within the Council area,” Associate Professor Jayaraman said.
Associate Professor Jayaraman explained that since the trucks are a permanent fixture of the community, they collect and monitor for eight hours a day.
“On average, these trucks do eight hours of collection, either green waste or your household waste.
“The entire solution is live and as the trucks are driving out every day from their 5am shift to midday, we are collecting data, processing it and reporting back to Brimbank.”
As the trucks continue to gather data, Council is determining how best to pilot the new system in 2023 and boost community benefits.
“The project’s next phase is to integrate this into Council’s digital systems and processes,” Mayor Nguyen said.
Mayor Nguyen said the data allows Council to explore the possibilities of asset monitoring and automated notifications of maintenance requirements in real time, and could be further developed to include identifying road maintenance requirements such as potholes and faded line markings, while also fitting into the City’s broader smart city plans and 10 Year Asset Plan.
Collaboration the key to success
Mayor Nguyen said that the research project has been a great opportunity to partner with and learn from experts in the field, and deliver an enhanced service to the Brimbank community through working together.
Associate Professor Jayaraman said that although there were many small challenges along the journey, as expected in an innovative project such as this, the biggest was the uniqueness of the initiative.
“I think it’s a very unique project where a council’s working with a university. We kicked off the project in October/November last year and I think the first fully deployed functional solution was sometime in May/June, which means we hardly had about six months to go from nothing to a fully deployed solution,” Associate Professor Jayaraman said.
“To me, for a university and council collaboration, that was an astounding outcome because you wouldn’t hear similar stories often.
“But traditionally we universities are not known to be that agile, I think Swinburne’s changing that in terms of where we are and where we want to be, in delivering those tech solutions and bringing innovative technologies to people in a very short and agile way.”
Associate Professor Jayaraman said another challenge was the complexity of the project, which required a team with diverse expertise in technologies from IoT to cloud computing, to Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and operational knowledge of Brimbank City Council.
“So bringing all of us together, coordinating, making everything work together, all of these were actually quite interesting.”
It wasn’t just the execution of course, but the design and technical issues that were also time consuming for the team, such as where to install the camera, how to deploy it on the cloud and what needed to be developed – because there were no stock solutions for this new project.
“We had to develop this as a bespoke solution. But I’m quite happy. I think as a team, overall, we did a great job in pulling it all together and here we are – with a fully live working solution,” Associate Professor Jayaraman said.
Mayor Nguyen said that the research is a great example of incorporating new technology into existing processes and optimising services to the Brimbank community.
“This research project is an example to other councils that even if you are unable to innovate in-house, there are ways to explore new possibilities with industry partners for grant opportunities and new perspectives on service delivery.”