I’m just beginning to wrap my mind around the fact that all sorts of personal devices communicate through wireless connections, including baby monitors, security systems, wearable fitness apps, and cameras inside my refrigerator.  This so-called “Internet of Things” seems both cool and, since the data they generate could be accessible to others, a bit risky.  While I can’t imagine anyone but my husband or I caring whether we’re out of milk, the idea that a stranger could watch my granddaughter playing in her crib is scary.

So I was brought up short when I came across a reference to the “Internet of Postal Things”.  What does the U.S. Postal Service have in mind?

It turns out that they have some really interesting ideas.  The USPS has a vast infrastructure of vehicles, carriers, post offices and mailboxes that could be equipped with sensors to collect useful data.  The 215,000 vehicles they have traveling the same routes 6 days per week could monitor air quality, traffic flow, road maintenance and wireless signal strength, among other things.

The Office of Inspector General recently released a report titled The Postal Service and Cities: A “Smart” PartnershipAfter discussions with dozens of cities, they are proposing five pilot programs:

  • Monitoring pavement conditions in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania through digital cameras mounted inside the windshields of postal trucks. The video images would be automatically uploaded at the end of the day to the city’s transportation department, which would use existing software to identify emerging cracks and potholes on an interactive map.
  • Monitoring the structural integrity of bridges. Also planned for Pittsburgh, accelerometers installed in postal trucks would collect vibration data that could be analyzed to identify small structural problems while they are still cheap and easy to fix.  This technology is already being used in a pilot program that measures the conditions of train tracks in Pittsburgh’s light rail system, but the analysis needs to be fine-tuned to filter out noise in the data.
  • Identifying fire hydrants losing pressure and underground water pipes starting to leak in Montgomery County, Maryland. Sensors in fire hydrants and water pipes detect breakdowns, but the battery-powered signal beacons can transmit an alert no more than 20 to 30 yards.  As a postal vehicle drove past hydrants or over underground pipes, a device attached to its dashboard could pick up the signals and upload the data to the cloud, alerting the water utility to the problem.
  • Measuring air quality in Portland, Oregon. Portland already measures air quality at specific monitoring stations, but they are only getting readings for a small number of static locations.  If air quality sensors were attached to the outside of postal vehicles, geotagged data from throughout the city could be sent directly to the cloud, giving a much more detailed picture of the city’s air quality.
  • Identifying urban blight in Schenectady, New York. Postal carriers get to know properties in an area well.  If carriers were to use an app to report that a house is falling into disrepair or that no one is emptying a mailbox, governments could take more proactive steps to prevent unoccupied properties from decaying and affecting property values.

While all of these proposed pilot projects have challenges, it is exciting to see that innovative thinkers are working on ideas to use the USPS’s unique assets to identify problems and improve our cities.

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