For all of our tech geekery, sometimes the most profound innovations are not driven out of Google X or advanced physics laboratories. The story of SYNDÉO (Greek for “connect”) intrigued us as a super-practical solution to the question of, “How are we going to efficiently deploy the oodles of new IoT devices in urban environments?” and reminded us of the profound role shipping container standardization played in activating the global economy. The SYNDÉO Smart Vault may not answer that question fully, but it did capture the attention of the IDC Smart Cities North America awards committee, and led Austin to a win in the “Urban Planning and Land Use” category. We talked with Chris Henshue, company COO and co-founder, to learn more.
SmartAustin: Please tell us the back story that led to Austin’s win in the IDC competition. (Article: 2018 IDC Smart Cities North American Awards)
Chris Henshue: Our firm was part of Austin’s final proposal to the US Department of Transportation’s smart cities competition a few years ago. As you know, Austin was one of seven finalists. Though the city did not win, they reached out afterwards and explained that they were interested in our solution. Accordingly, in April of 2017, we deployed two of our Smart Vaults in Austin as part of a pilot trial with the DOT. I’ve now been down to Austin, from Wisconsin, seven or eight times in the past year. We work closely with Austin’s Department of Transportation now. The bottom line is that you always need a place to place the tech!
The initial concept [“surface-level domes”] that underlies our product is deployed all over the US and the world and was originally developed in Japan in the 1970’s. It started as a solution to assist wayfinding for the visually impaired. You are probably familiar with the panels, often found at street corners, that are covered in little bumps, and queue pedestrians through tactile feedback to pending hazards.
We realized, after a few pivots, that there was an opportunity to connect these panels, which have to be installed in many places anyway as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, to incorporate a small underground vault that can contain roadside communications equipment and other concealed deployments for smart cities technology.
We now have two US patents, with others pending, for a waterproof, thermally controlled subsurface vault. With the growth of wireless, 5G, and a host of emerging smart city tech, there will be a tremendous number of new infrastructure needs.
Our first trial was in Austin. The go-to solution today is to attach antennas, radios and cabling to existing poles, which is not visually pleasing nor especially secure, and Austin was interested in finding a better way.
I should not that SYNDÉO is not formally named in the award but we are proud that, of 3000 public votes, the City of Austin received 49%. The other half of the voting weight came through an expert panel.
SA: Tell us about the results of your first trial.
CH: We believe our solution was strongly battle-tested and came out very well. Of course, it gets very hot in Texas, and the temperature reached 106 degrees during the summer months our trial. Also, during Hurricane Harvey, eight inches of rain fell in a matter of five days. Not a drop of water entered the vault.
SA: What are your current goals, for development and deployment?
CH: We are glad there is so much hot interest in Austin. We are planning our next trial, about 90 days out, which will include a larger version of our vault enclosure, roughly four feet by four feet by 24 inches deep. So, our goals are to validate increasingly larger subsurface vaults, but also to move from a fan-based, to a ventless, solution.
We are piloting a second use case now, which is traffic signal controllers. Every month, those roadside metal cabinets are taken out by accidents or otherwise. Also, five hundred intersections have lead-acid battery back-ups as well, and the accidents can lead to acid leaks, in addition to exposed electronics. We’ve put four lead-acid batteries underground at 8th and Colorado and are currently monitoring the pilot.
We’re very close with a few telecoms, and our work in Austin helped there. There is, I have to admit, a bit of a bad rap given to vaults, given past experiences in the industry, but we are confident via the field data we’ve obtained in Austin, that we’ve solved many of the previous industry fragilities and risks. For instance, we provide a waterproof guarantee and put our money where our mouth is.
SA: Is anything else slowing down adoption?
CH: Well it’s definitely true that just strapping an antenna to a pole is cheaper but, for 5G, every carrier will need 250-800 small cells per square mile, so cities, and the tech companies, will need alternative solutions if we don’t want visual clutter in our urban environments.
California, at a state and municipal level, has been at the forefront of taking a stand against that clutter. So, that’s been an opportunity area for us. Also, we are emphasizing, to carriers, the consistent operating temperature that we can provide. This should lead to longer equipment life cycles and more efficient maintenance.
We feel that we are the superior concealed technology deployment solution. We are in the first inning of 5G and cities are going to be bombarded and will have to provide solutions for the deployment of tech. Seventy-five to eighty percent of population will live in dense cities by 2030 and cities with best connectivity and services will win.