5 Ways Supercomputers Make Cities Smart

Supercomputers are helping urban planners run simulations, make predictions and build models, bringing the dream of a smart city closer to reality.

AsianScientist (Aug. 15, 2018) – Everything from mobile phones televisions are getting the prefix ‘smart,’ and cities are no exception. With the help of sensors monitoring parameters such as air quality and rubbish levels, city planners can now make data-driven decisions instead of relying on estimates or best guesses.

However, drawing insights from big data requires significant computing power. This is where supercomputers can make a difference, helping governments and private enterprises involved in city management cut through the noise and make decisions that improve how cities are run.

1. Smarter design and planning

The physical landscapes of cities are in constant flux as new structures emerge amid tight spaces. To make the best use of limited space, city planners must make good decisions during the design and planning stage.

In the past, two-dimensional blueprints would be the go-to source of information when deciding on the location of a new building or how it would look. Now, urban planners have a new tool with which to visualize buildings before construction begins—three-dimensional simulations.

China’s Tianhe-1A supercomputer, which boasts 2.57 petaFLOPS of computing prowess, is helping city planners create simulations of huge construction projects before a single brick is laid. The simulations use data on building materials and energy consumption to optimize how resources can be mobilized. According to Mr. Meng Xiangfei, head of the applications department of the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin, such simulations may reduce construction costs by up to 20 percent.

2. Empowering energy research

Large cities are voracious energy guzzlers, and governments everywhere have made it a priority to find alternative sources of electrical power. Nuclear fission—the splitting of the nucleus of an atom—has been tabled as a compelling option for powering the smart cities of the future. The drawback? Radioactive waste produced by nuclear fission is damaging to humans and the environment.

As an alternative to nuclear fission, scientists have billed nuclear fusion as a cleaner and more abundant energy source. During nuclear fusion, the nuclei of two atoms collide to form one or more new, non-toxic products, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process. There are, however, existing knowledge barriers to nuclear fusion. For one, researchers need a better understanding of superhot gas called plasma, a critical enabler of nuclear fusion.

To simulate plasma behavior, the National Institutes for Quantum and Radiological Science and Technology in Japan has commissioned a supercomputer dedicated to nuclear fusion research. With a peak performance of around four petaFLOPS, it may not be the fastest supercomputer in the world, but it provides more thanthe necessary compute resources to shed light on the future of energy.

3. Forecasting the weather

Looking into the future might sound like something straight out of fantasy fiction, but with supercomputers, smart cities are now able to forecast extreme weather and predict natural disasters ahead of time. This has wide-ranging implications, from day-to-day living toagriculture and emergency response.

In January 2018, India unveiled a Cray supercomputer consisting of two nodes—named Pratyush and Mihir—that are to be used for meteorological monitoring. Additionally, the pair of supercomputing nodes will allow researchers in India to crunch data from 146 river sub-basins, enablingmore accurate flood forecasts.

Similarly, the Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) of South Korea uses a Cray XC40 supercomputer to analyze weather patterns. The Cray XC40 generates 160,000 weather maps per day with a processing speed of 5.8 petaFLOPS. KMA has announced a US$56 million investment into building a 50 petaFLOPS supercomputer that will be able to produce one million weather maps per day when it is ready in 2020.

4. Augmenting transportation

Most modern cities are chock-full of people, and moving them around in urban centers can be challenging. The future of urban mobility therefore lies in optimizing the use of multiple modes of transportation.

Researchers at Singapore’s Institute of High Performance Computing are tapping on data from the city’s smart farecard system and combining it with land use data to predict transport ridership across the city. The insights obtained from these predictions may help improve the deployment of passenger-carrying vehicles in the city state or provide feedback for urban planning.

Meanwhile, Chinese technology company Baidu, in collaboration with American chipmaker NVIDIA and German smart mobility firm ZF, are developing another form of mobility altogether—autonomous vehicles (AVs).

While AVs are driven by sensors and artificial intelligence, they need to cope with enormous volumes of data as they assess and react to their surroundings. Hence, under the bonnet of Baidu’s mass-produced AV model Apollo Pilot is NVIDIA’s DRIVE XavierTM, a supercomputing chip capable of performing 30 trillion operations per second on a paltry 30 watts of power.

5. Monitoring air pollution

Heavy vehicular traffic and industrial activity within cities often means that air quality takes a hit. Beijing experienced severe smog in January 2017, when the air quality index hit an all-time high of 482. Not only are readings above 300 considered extremely hazardous to health, visibility was also so poor that flights had to be cancelled.

Measures have since been taken to better monitor and control air pollution using supercomputers. The Tianhe1A supercomputer is being used to run simulations and build computer models that include data on the various natural and man-made sources of air pollution.

Using data from 114 cities in China accumulated through 668 distributed sensors, scientists are hoping to be able to predict the onset of smog in advance, estimate its duration, as well as pinpoint the root causes of extreme cases of air pollution. This will help municipal authorities issue early warnings and craft policies to improve air quality.

This article was first published in the print version of Supercomputing Asia, July 2018.
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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Supercomputing Asia.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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