Desh Tecnologia plans to bring an innovative system to market this year that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to control street lighting. The Brazilian startup was selected in a 2016 call for proposals on Smart Cities-Sustainable Cities issued under the aegis of the PIPE/PAPPE Grant Program, which combines funding from FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE), and FINEP, the federal government’s innovation agency.
Desh Tecnologia developed both the hardware and software for its smart street lighting control system, which is wirelessly connected to the internet. The firm plans to extend the system’s functionality beyond street lighting to the control of traffic lights, parking meters, and water and gas consumption.
Electrical engineer Douglas Malvar Ribas, co-founding partner of Desh Tecnologia, explains that wide-area wireless communications combined with the integration of a range of devices of interest for smart cities are possible thanks to the choice of mesh radio frequency technology for the project. Unlike a Wi-Fi network, which uses a single internet router, a wireless mesh network comprises several devices or nodes that transmit data and serve as relays for other nodes. “A mesh is a network topology in which all the nodes act as signal repeaters,” Ribas says. “Street lighting offers the possibility of installing many nodes in close proximity to each other, creating wide-area internet coverage.”
The system has three basic elements: a radio frequency unit (RFU) in each street light that acts as a photocell that switches the lamp on and off, concentrators at strategic nodes to receive the data sent from each node in the mesh, and a control center with AI for data analysis.
In its street lighting application, Ribas says, the system does not just switch the lamps on or off, which is a function that is available from other systems using sensors that detect ambient light levels. “Our system’s functionality also includes the control of light intensity using presence sensors, current measurement to estimate energy consumption, and fault diagnostics to help plan maintenance.”
Similar systems are already operating in Brazil. “Desh’s key differentiator is communications using next-generation mesh technology, found in some imported systems, but in our case with full local control of the technology,” Ribas says. “We don’t use licensed technology or communications modules purchased from third parties.”
The potential market for the product in its street lighting application is significant, Ribas believes. In addition to conserving electricity thanks to the more efficient control of lighting equipment usage and maintenance, the system enables users to measure energy consumption with a high degree of precision, which should attract utilities as well as city governments.
“Utilities bill cities for street lighting based on the number of lamps, average consumption, and the average time during which the lights are on. Our system provides much more accurate and precise data on all these factors, measuring consumption for utility billing purposes and also correcting errors and helping to avoid losses to both parties,” Ribas says.
Desh expects municipalities to be among the product’s end users, but the startup does not plan to sell it directly to city governments. “Our sales efforts will target the consortia or contractors engaged by cities to implement, operate and maintain street lighting,” Ribas says.
The system’s other capabilities will attract clients in different segments. “Street lighting is off for most of the day, but sensors can be connected to the mesh to operate traffic lights and control smart parking meters [enabling drivers to find parking spaces in real time via a smartphone app]. Utilities can also leverage the system to help control their own devices and even automate their networks,” Ribas explains.
Power, water, gas and oil utilities are already part of Desh’s customer base. According to Ribas, the firm has supplied two major power utilities with equipment for the automated metering of electricity consumption. “Our revenue stream currently comes from the sale of RFUs that include on-board software to measure power usage,” he says.
Headquartered in São Paulo City, Desh is in its fifth year of operation. The company was founded in 2014 to participate in the national startup acceleration program (Startup Brasil) established by the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications (MCTIC). “We set up the firm to participate in the program,” Ribas recalls.
Ribas then worked alongside two other engineers, Adriano Yamaoka and Hugo Sampaio, for a company that developed communications solutions for manufacturers. “We could see there was demand for mesh network technology then emerging worldwide, but prospective clients wanted locally developed solutions tailored to the needs of the domestic market,” Ribas says. “The company we worked for wasn’t interested in investing in the development of these solutions, so we decided to start our own business.” Desh currently has four employees and two interns with scholarships, as well as the three partners.
After participating in the federal government’s accelerator program, Desh was awarded a one-year seed grant and joined Baita, a startup accelerator hosted by the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in São Paulo State. There, the company received guidance on strategy and management. “We had no difficulty starting the firm, but we faced problems shortly after that because revenue wasn’t sufficient for us to keep going,” Ribas says. “The grant money ran out, and the projects were long-term, so we didn’t have concrete results for a considerable time. We had to fund the firm out of our own pockets and take on debt.”
The funding won from the PIPE program gave the partners some extra breathing room. “The program also enabled us to invest in innovative, high-risk technology. Our goal is to develop cutting-edge solutions to compete eye to eye with international giants. We want to be best-in-class in the segment,” Ribas concludes.