As smart city projects have progressed, there's been a noticeable trend of ambiguity in customer requirements.
Smart cities are increasingly becoming a focal point for government initiatives globally. Data from Statista projects that by 2023, the worldwide revenue for smart city technologies, products, and services could touch US$ 89 billion.
In a bid to understand the intricacies of this sector, we engaged with Vehant Technologies, an Indian firm that has contributed to approximately 50 smart city projects. Expanding on the company's journey, Kapil Bardeja, the Co-founder & CEO of the company, shared seven pivotal insights.
With manufacturing units in both India and the Netherlands, Vehant specializes in providing Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning-driven solutions for physical security, surveillance, and traffic monitoring and enforcement. Their clientele spans India, the Middle East, and several South Asian nations.
The need for clear communication with customers
As smart city projects have progressed, there's been a noticeable trend of ambiguity in customer requirements. While specific needs, such as speed monitoring systems, are often outlined, details regarding fine enforcement and future integrations tend to be less defined in the RFPs. This can result in unforeseen responsibilities not originally included in the proposal.
“Although RFPs have become more detailed recently, addressing cybersecurity norms and integration threads, there are still areas of ambiguity,” Bardeja said. “This can cause friction between what the customer expects and what was bid for. Our system integrators usually face this challenge first.”
As an OEM supplier, the company provides all necessary documentation and highlights any constraints. It's up to the system integrator to decide whether to communicate these constraints to the customer immediately or address them later. One area of improvement is that if an OEM identifies a problem, it should be clearly communicated to the customer.
Traffic-related features in high demand
Smart city projects commonly request systems for speed detection and traffic signal violation detection. In recent years, there's been a significant demand for "no helmet detection."
This feature is crucial in countries like India, which have high road accident rates. Annually, around 250,000 people lose their lives in accidents in India, with 70 percent being two-wheeler drivers. Studies indicate that 80 percent of these fatalities occur because the rider wasn't wearing a helmet.
“Injuries from accidents without helmets are often fatal, especially at high speeds,” Bardeja said. “Other in-demand features include triple riding detection, wrong lane driving detection, and pedestrian crossing violations. We've also introduced a module for seatbelt detection, which can identify if a four-wheeler driver isn't wearing their seatbelt from a distance. Additionally, we have features for detecting mobile phone usage while driving. While these systems have varying accuracy levels, they effectively filter out many non-compliant cases using AI. These are some of the typical use cases being implemented currently.”
Clear specifications are essential for seamless integrations
Smart city initiatives are undeniably extensive, encompassing a multitude of solutions and engaging a diverse set of vendors. The crux of their success hinges on flawless integration. Bardeja highlighted that, based on their encounters, integration challenges often arise when OEMs are hesitant to grant comprehensive access.
“When specifications are clear, we face no challenges in integration,” Bardeja said. “However, integration is like a partnership; both parties must agree. Sometimes, when working with foreign OEMs, they might be hesitant to share SDKs or APIs as extensively as we'd like. With Indian OEMs, the process is generally more flexible. But there are projects where the integration isn't smooth, requiring us to escalate the issue to the customer for resolution.”
The increasing importance of cybersecurity
Cybersecurity is a top priority. Over the past five years, Bardeja has observed bids that require not just the entire system but also its individual components to be cybersecurity-compliant and certified. Authorities worldwide are becoming more and more strict in ensuring these concerns are addressed, making them an essential part of the handover process.
“We've been involved in 50 smart city projects, and a common requirement is certifications for vulnerability assessment and penetration testing (VAPT),” Bardeja said. “It's essential to ensure compliance with the latest cybersecurity guidelines, including ensuring there are no hardware backdoors. Smart city projects have a well-structured acceptance program for these standards.”
In the private sector, companies have diverse policies. Some maintain dedicated networks, while others ensure no data is sent externally, even to cloud services. The company has encountered resistance from customers interested in its enterprise solutions but is hesitant about sending its camera data to the cloud due to security concerns.
Region-specific challenges are real
Using analytics for traffic management is complex, depending on where in the world you are deploying them. Unlike developed nations, traffic in many emerging economies like India is characterized by non-linear patterns, a high number of two-wheelers, and non-standard license plates.
“Initially, we believed that the number plate recognition system (ANPR) would be universally standard,” Bardeja said. “We even imported some systems, thinking they would work seamlessly in India. However, when we tested these systems about 9-10 years ago, their accuracy was only around 10 percent to 30 percent. Such low accuracy made them unsuitable for deployment in India. As a result, we developed our own Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for ANPR.”
Common mistakes of systems integrators
In physical security projects, the expertise of systems integrators (SI) plays a pivotal role in determining the project's success. A prevalent issue is that many SIs tend to oversell the solution without adequately informing the customer about the technology's constraints.
“As OEMs, we emphasize these constraints because we know we'll face challenges during implementation,” Bardeja said. “This oversight isn't always intentional. Some in the industry might do it deliberately to secure an order, planning to address issues later. However, many SIs might simply be unaware of the intricacies, leading to errors in areas like server sizing. This can result in additional costs as they might need to provide a server later to meet their commitments.”
It's a daunting task for an SI to fully understand the nuances of numerous products. This knowledge gap often distinguishes larger SIs from smaller ones. Bigger companies have the resources to train their sales teams extensively on each product. Ultimately, SIs must invest in learning - there's no shortcut to resolving this issue.
Best practices for systems integrators
Vehant primarily collaborates with system integrators for its security screening solutions. Recently, the company has also started onboarding integrators for its enterprise business.
“For security screening, we realized that while system integrators handle a wide range of products, they might not have in-depth expertise in any specific one,” Bardeja said. “Given this, we shifted our strategy: we sell to the system integrator, but our in-house team handles the installation and maintenance. We've established a dedicated team of 100 professionals across India for this purpose.”
For their enterprise solutions, system integrators play a pivotal role due to the diverse customer base and smaller ticket sizes. Vehant is targeting thousands of manufacturing companies with whom they can't directly engage for sales, installation, or servicing. To address this, they've been onboarding partners and training their teams to integrate their AI into existing camera systems.
“These integrators typically specialize in camera networking, storage, and video management systems,” Bardeja said. “We're now guiding them towards video analytics implementation and deployment. For any system integrator looking to integrate advanced technologies, it's crucial to invest time and resources in training their teams. Without proper knowledge and skills, the implementation can go awry, which isn't beneficial for either the integrator or OEMs like us.”