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Wichita, Kan., Deploys IoT Sensors to Prevent Copper Theft

The city partnered with local IoT company Viaanix to put sensors on light poles and junction boxes, which notified police when tampered with, potentially saving tens of thousands of dollars in theft and repairs.

Metal theft from a streetlight pole's junction box
Use cases for Internet-of-Things devices seem to multiply every year, and this fall the city of Wichita, Kan., found a new one: preventing copper theft.

According to Smart City Coordinator Michael Barnett, during the past few years Wichita has seen a spike in copper theft from underground conduits and street light poles in city-owned facilities and public parks. Wichita is not alone in this, and Barnett suspected the trend was related to the federal government’s tariffs, because every time someone in high office talked about tariffs on the news, there was an uptick in thefts.

“People would come in in the middle of the night, cut the main service lines where the power companies would drop off the main connection point, and then … they’d either clip the other lines and then pull by hand, or they’d hook up a Jeep or truck wench and pull the copper by force,” Barnett said.

On top of the price of the copper, the culprits would destroy these conduits in the process, and the cost of these thefts and repairs added up fast. Barnett said one recreational center was hit on a regular basis — a single incident costing up to $31,000 — so the city resorted to keeping the rec center’s lights on to deter thieves. But they were giant halogen lights, negating the cost-saving measure by adding about $16,000 to the facility’s power bill. Barnett said in total, copper theft cost the city more than $100,000 in damage in 2018 alone.

Realizing that more aggressive preventive measures could be a worthwhile investment, the city partnered with a local IoT company, Viaanix, to install $25-$35 sensors on underground junction boxes and street lights at common theft locations. The city and Viaanix worked with local emergency dispatch to connect the sensors to a 911 line, so they’d automatically call police when one of the boxes or light poles was opened without authorization.

Viaanix CEO Jatin Talreja identified the sensors Wichita used as the VE LoRa Beacon and VX-BLS, both anti-theft devices with onboard sensors to detect movement, orientation change and vibrations. He said they come with algorithms to detect whether the movement is likely to be theft, and if so, they directly notify 911 with the time, nature and location of the incident.

“You can use them indoors or outdoors to detect all kinds of theft. You can also do corrective maintenance for machinery to see how many hours it has run … and the devices could be retrofitted with any sensor needed,” Talreja said. “If someone needed to see how much their air conditioner is running, we could do that … or if somebody wants to know how fast a motor is running. All of our hardware is modular, which means the customers can get their IoT solution packaged in one total solution.”

Barnett said the pilot program started Aug. 10 and ran through the end of November, and the city is working on a summary report now, but the short version is that the investment paid off.

He said there were two incidents during the program in which boxes were opened between 1 and 3 a.m., and in both cases, the culprit fled the scene empty-handed.

“The general agreement with city management, all the way down, is that the technology proved to be worthwhile, as long as it’s strategically deployed," Barnett said. "The city of Wichita has over 400,000 junction boxes, so this isn’t a technology we would want to deploy in every junction box in the city. You could argue that single junction box unit … was an $11,000 box to repair, but if they had been able to rob from that junction box and move on to the rest of that facility, it could have potentially been as high as $33,000, which was more than the cost of the investment in the technology we [used].”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.