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Combine some of the brightest tech minds in the industry with a city intent on accelerating next generation technologies and you get Curiosity Lab. This fertile testing ground for tomorrow’s IoT systems includes a 5G enabled autonomous vehicle track, a smart city laboratory and an array of other one-of-a-kind tech features.
Add to the mix the free-of-charge price tag for use of the facilities and a host city that assesses no property taxes. Sound like a doomed economic development formula? Far from it. It’s a strategy that is working out better than expected since the Lab opened in September 2019, even in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Nestled within a 500-acre technology park in the city of Peachtree Corners, Ga., this futuristic, living laboratory is attracting companies from all over the world. Large Fortune 500 companies and small tech startups are testing their latest innovations – and a few are even relocating their headquarters to the property.
The city owns the Lab and invested $4 million to build it with the goal of luring tech-minded people to live in Peachtree Corners and companies to headquarter there. And it’s working.
For example, ASHRAE (a building systems organization), which has 55,000 members in 102 countries, is in the process refurbishing an office building near the Lab.
“ASHRAE offers a state-of-the-art example of what smart city technology centered around building control might look like,” says Jacob Hamilton, a spokesman for Curiosity Lab.
Betsy Plattenburg, executive director for Curiosity Lab, says the city “has gotten a lot of attention brought to it by this project and some peripheral results have already taken place.”
“We have a fair number of people who want to move to the city because they see it as innovative and want to be associated with that,” she says.
There are 1,000 hotel rooms along the track, the facility also has the capacity to host technical conferences bringing additional visitors to the innovation hub — whether they are testing or connecting with people in the innovation space.
Operations During Pandemic
Peachtree Corners enjoys a population of 45,000 and, before COVID-19, supported the same number of jobs. Many of the lost jobs are in service industries and are expected to come back once the city is fully operational again (see related interview with Brian Johnson, Peachtree Corner’s City Manager). Within the technology park is a labor force of about 8,000 and more than 1,000 residents.
Because parts of the park are located on public roadways, people have been going about their business, though not the way it was before the pandemic.
“There are not as many people out and about, but we are getting testing inquiries every week, which is really fascinating,” observes Plattenburg.
The Lab has continued to line up additional infrastructure and scope out people who will be testing in the future, she says. Many companies are testing communication devices which don’t require people to interact with each other, so social distancing has not an been an issue in those contexts.
To amplify the Lab’s infrastructure, the city partners with companies that want to become part of the lab and will donate infrastructure at no cost. For example, Sprint (now merged with T-Mobile) provides the Lab’s 5G connectivity and Georgia Power provides smart poles. The city has developed a variety of other partnerships, including with Delta and Georgia Tech. The Lab recently expanded its partnership with Hargray Fiber to provide critical infrastructure for the Lab’s Innovation Center. The company currently provides fiber connectivity for Curiosity Lab’s 1.5-mile autonomous vehicle test track.
What makes the Lab special is its real-world environment, in which thousands of people live, work and interact with the technology. The complex has a smart city living laboratory and features a 5G-enabled autonomous vehicle test track. The 1.5-mile track creates a 3-mile loop for vehicles to be tested with real roadway challenges (see box below for distinctive features of Curiosity Lab).
Curiosity Lab Amenities
“The reason it is so unique from a testing environment is because we’re putting together a test vehicle with real human traffic,” says Plattenburg. “There’s pedestrian and bicycle traffic, but it’s not super congested like in a big city. Also, it’s not a controlled environment like where most technology is being tested, especially autonomous vehicles.”
Additionally, other real-world features make the track special, such as a 13 percent grade in one section of the track; road curves; and tall, mature shaded trees, all of which challenge autonomous cars in realistic ways.
The city owns the roads, right of way and sidewalk so there is only one governmental entity that makes decisions on testing or reconfigurations, whereas other cities may have multiple jurisdictions involving county, city, state and even federal, notes Plattenburg.
“We can make decisions very quickly,” she says. “That’s a great appeal for companies wanting to test here.”
That is precisely why Tortoise, GoX chose Curiosity Lab as its first pilot testing ground for its teleoperated 100-scooter fleet.
“The city understands that startups don’t have time for endless bureaucratic cycles,” says Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder and president of Tortoise. “We were impressed with the speed at which they moved us through all aspects of government. It was appealing and refreshing.”
Moreover, the city was so motivated by the project, it passed an ordinance mandating that all shared micromobility devices such as scooters only operate with repositioning technology. Tortoise is the only company so far that offers this feature.
Tortoise is partnered with GoX, a scooter operator that makes scooters available for rental to the public. Tortoise provides the repositioning technology that can remotely move a scooter from one location to another.
The service works like this: A rider requests a scooter from a phone app, and one is sent to his location. When the rider is finished with the scooter, the repositioning system retrieves it and returns it back to its home base, where it is then cleaned and disinfected before the being dispatched to the next user. It is a clean, efficient service that prevents the scooter clutter plaguing other cities deploying them.
The city provided the perfect setting for the company to gather data, gauge public response and tweak the system.
“You have a lot of office park workers [and] good density of population, and it’s a very safe community so we are not worried about vandalism and other things that might be problematic,” says Shevelenko.
Listening to the Experts
When it came to developing the best testing venue for autonomous vehicles, smart city IoT and mobility technologies, city officials listened carefully to the experts, learned from their experience and flexed according to what they were hearing.
“We started with a basic understanding of advanced vehicles and learned so much at every meeting and then we adapted. We had an idea and went out to stakeholders who said, ‘I like your idea, but if you add this it will be more appealing,’” says Plattenburg. The city was very flexible and responsive to the input.
For example, the original configuration of the track seemed all-inclusive, but stakeholders suggested making the loop longer. They also emphasized the merits of having traffic lights that would have the ability to be turned on and off with technology. “So we staged an intersection, which is a three-way stop with traffic lights, not because the traffic demanded it but because it was what the people testing were interested in,” Plattenburg recalls.
Recently, there have been requests for a roundabout on the vehicle track because potential testers say it’s critical for the vehicle to understand how to navigate it. No plans had been made for one, “but when our potential customers ask us over and over and tell us why it’s so important, we are now considering building that into the track.”
Listening to the experts has paid off well for the Lab, resulting in a slew of unique features and attracting interest from companies all over the globe. Not only does the Lab infuse a refreshing vibe to the Tech Park, but it augments Peachtree Corners’ quest to be at the forefront of innovation.
“I want us to continue to be that ‘hot place to go,’” says Brian Johnson, city manager. “That takes a lot of work and making the right decisions over time. I think we can make the argument we are there now.” (See related interview with Johnson).
For more information contact Jacob Hamilton at: firstname.lastname@example.org