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Japan's Vending Machine Missing Persons Location Network

Grant Samms
Feb 17, 2020

Connected City 6

One of the greatest promises of smart cities—and the wave of Internet of Things devices they come with—is the ability to give new function to unremarkable objects. A simple camera can be connected to a machine vision system and automatically recommend when and where to reroute traffic. A bridge can be granted the ability to sense coastal flooding events and send out targeted warnings to residents in harm’s way. A simple light pole can become the foundation for an entire data generation and communication ecosystem.

In that same spirit, there is a field test underway in Tokyo with the aim of locating people who have gone missing. As a city with an aging population, the inability to quickly locate missing persons is a growing problem. Researchers at Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) are working on a solution to this particular worry: a network of sensors hosted by smart vending machines.

Smart Cities Transform Mundane Objects

While it may sound odd, vending machines are actually well suited as hosts for smart city technologies since they are often already networked for digital payments. Once you have electricity and data flowing to an object, you have a potential platform for innovative smart city programs. Streetlight poles are starting to emerge in a similar capacity, but vending machines enjoy the advantage of an extensive, preexisting install base. They are powered and networked objects distributed around central business districts and typically controlled by just a handful of operations companies. 

In NICT’s project, vending machines are fitted with an antenna that can identify signals from a transponder about half as big as a deck of cards. Were a person carrying one of these transponders to become lost, the vending machines could search for the signal of their transponder specifically. Individual machines are networked as part of a multi-hop network that can relay locations back to public safety officials. By working with a local soft drink company, NICT expects to be able to cover 90% of their test area in Tokyo. They are also partnering with a local taxi company to mount mobile locators in cars. This partnership would provide the same location potential but with the added feature of mobility.

While this system’s primary function is envisioned as locating missing persons, having a widespread network of signal detectors could aid in other smart city functions. NICT is also considering applications for information dissemination, emergency response, and building collapse detection. 

The vending machine search network follows a formula that will likely become standard as smart city projects become more commonplace. Objects that we previously took for granted, and especially those already configured with a data connection, are poised to place a more active role in our lives. That is ultimately the goal of the “smart” in smart city; take what exists and make it better serve us all.