Parking sensors help CivicSmart be on target: Milwaukee company’s smart city efforts stretch around the world


CivicSmart’s sensors can be mounted on poles.

CivicSmart Inc.
Innovation: Parking Sensors

Not many startups can also claim an 80-year history, but that is how Milwaukee-based CivicSmart Inc. views itself after founder Balu Subramanya purchased the parking enforcement division of his former employer, Duncan Solutions Inc.

Duncan’s history dates back to 1936 and the company provided equipment and products for parking enforcement. The acquisition of Duncan Parking Technologies in 2015 gave CivicSmart the equipment division and nearly 2,000 clients around the world.

The batteries in CivicSmart’s subterranean sensors last between five and eight years by limiting the amount of power the sensor uses.
The batteries in CivicSmart’s subterranean sensors last between five and eight years by limiting the amount of power the sensor uses.

CivicSmart, which has office space in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, hopes to leverage that scale as it shifts away from straightforward parking meters to sensors that help in the development of smart cities.

“Smart parking is a very attractive piece of it because, unlike some of the other parts of a smart city platform, parking actually generates revenue,” said Mike Nickolaus, CivicSmart president and chief executive officer.

While using sensors for a host of applications is increasingly popular, Nickolaus said the challenge in the parking industry is to make any device accurate enough to support revenue-generating applications.

CivicSmart has developed a device that uses radar to determine whether or not a car is occupying a space. The advancement the company made was limiting the amount of power the device needed, meaning it could be installed underground and work for between five and eight years.

Nickolaus said the use of radar makes for much more accurate readings on whether a car is in a space or not. He said CivicSmart is able to achieve parking “session accuracy,” or tracking the time a car is parked in a space, of more than 99 percent.

“It won’t even read something from the lane next to it,” he said.

CivicSmart’s sensors can be mounted on poles.
CivicSmart’s sensors can be mounted on poles.

Published and documented data isn’t widely available on how other sensors perform, Nickolaus said. The best data available comes from a pilot program in San Francisco that ran from 2012 to 2013. That study found an average session accuracy of 83 percent, with results ranging from 72 to 96 percent.

Many of the sensors used in San Francisco utilized magnets, either alone or with some other technology, to determine if a car was parked in a space. Nickolaus said the problem is other cars or objects can interfere with the magnetic field.

“We think there’s a significant differentiator there,” he said.

CivicSmart has seen most of its demand come from international markets, particularly in Australia and parts of Africa.

“In the U.S., it’s actually been a little bit more of a slow rollout,” Nickolaus said. The company has conducted trials in Las Vegas; El Paso, Texas; Wilmington, Del.; and Milwaukee.

Once sensors are accurate enough, there are a number of potential applications for both cities and consumers. Some of these are already being applied in parking garages where the number of available spaces can be displayed, but accuracy is much more difficult on the streets.

The potential applications include managing how much to charge for parking based on demand, zeroing out the time on a meter when a car leaves, or providing information on available spaces to consumers. Nickolaus said there is also potential in the area of parking permits for residents of certain buildings or for those with disabilities.

The potential for the sensors is increased when it is combined with other advancements in parking technology. That includes mobile payment apps, handheld readers for enforcement and more. Having the infrastructure and products established by Duncan as a part of the company pays dividends in this area, according to Nickolaus.

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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