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'Smart Brick' creator describes award winning invention

Pete Hoffswell
Valerie Wojciechowski
Grand Valley State University

The City of Holland is known for many things, including North America’s largest sidewalk snowmelt system. It was constructed in 1988 measuring nearly five miles in length. The Holland Energy Park provides the heat that melts the sidewalk snow. The system is managed with monitors at the plant, field crews and citizens who call when a section is on the fritz.

“And that gave me the idea of building a network of snowmelt monitoring sensors throughout our city that monitor the temperature of the sidewalk to make sure it’s within the designed parameters and allow the guys back at the plant to make informed decisions on how to run it.”

An employee of the Holland Board of Public Works, Pete Hoffswell developed plastic bricks, or what he calls, ‘Smart Bricks.’

“The first thing I had to do was design a radio network for our town that would allow these sensors sitting out in the field to be able to communicate back with the mothership, so to speak, and I did that using a low-power radio network technology called LoRa. Very interesting technology in that its low power and long range. So, I can set the sensors in the sidewalk and they can run on a battery for over a year. We have sensors out on the sidewalk today that are sleeping to save battery. They wake up once a day and report back in, still working great. What's really fascinating about this is that the radio network that I built is an open-access network. This allows our city to be a smart city by having an open infrastructure that anybody can build an application on and use this radio network to bring that data back in a secure way.”

The invention won Hoffswell the second annual Lakeshore Inventor of the Year Award, presented by Grand Valley State University's Muskegon Innovation Hub. 

I’m Patrick Center.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.