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Boston Trying Out Solar-Powered "Smart Benches" In Parks 119

Posted by samzenpus
from the hot-seat dept.
An anonymous reader writes Through a partnership with a MIT Media Lab spinoff, Changing Environments, Boston has announced that it will install solar-powered benches in several of its parks that allow you to charge your cell phone. The bench has a USB outlet, and also collects and shares a wide range of data, including location-based information, as well as air quality and noise-levels. "Your cell phone doesn't just make phone calls, why should our benches just be seats?" said Mayor Martin J. Walsh. "We are fortunate to have talented entrepreneurs and makers in Boston thinking creatively about sustainability and the next generation of amenities for our residents."
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Boston Trying Out Solar-Powered "Smart Benches" In Parks

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  • i did this (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ganjadude (952775) on Monday June 30, 2014 @12:06PM (#47350883) Homepage
    i did this in my backyard. except with a bar. I build a bar that had a canopy, on the canopy i attached a few panels, enough to power the lighting, a small stereo and a handful of USB chargers build into the bar itself. I dont have a large backup battery yet so its really only useful during the day time right now, however this makes perfect sense to do in parks, small scale solar is great for isolated outdoor areas
    • i did this in my backyard. except with a bar. I build a bar that had a canopy, on the canopy i attached a few panels, enough to power the lighting, a small stereo and a handful of USB chargers build into the bar itself. I dont have a large backup battery yet so its really only useful during the day time right now, however this makes perfect sense to do in parks, small scale solar is great for isolated outdoor areas

      Florida has had solar-powered benches for ages.

      On a typical summer day, they can sear unprotected flesh to medium-well done in under 5 minutes!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 30, 2014 @12:06PM (#47350887)

    Considering how much trouble cities seem to have maintaining a bench made of wood I question how long these are going to last. Honestly I give them a month before they're all broken or vandalized.

    • by Hodr (219920)

      or 3 days before all of the panels have been removed and sold by young entrepreneurs.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Quick question for anyone, on the topic of vandalism: If someone theoretically poured water or Coke or something into a USB slot, what would happen? What are the worst possible forms of sabotage to expect to USB ports?

      And yeah, are there any reasons why this won't be vandalized?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Salgat (1098063)
        Waterproof connectors exist, and as far as shorting 5V to ground, it just needs a built in current limiter so that it won't drive enough current to damage anything.
      • by ChadL (880878) *
        Liquids aren't hard to defend against, all it has are two wires with +5 volts and ground and a resistor across another two lines to tell the device its a dumb charging terminal (that doesn't need to be asked to draw more power). Some simple epoxy around the wires and a current limiter (common in just about every usb setup anyway) will take care of conductive liquids (by preventing them from doing damage to the electronics with the limit until the liquid drains out of the port).
        Chewing gum stuffed into the
        • by Obfuscant (592200)

          Some simple epoxy around the wires and a current limiter (common in just about every usb setup anyway) will take care of conductive liquids (by preventing them from doing damage to the electronics with the limit until the liquid drains out of the port).

          If you want to damage the electronics, carry a stun gun and zap the port. Or carry a portable battery powered inverter and stuff 120VAC into the system. Conductive liquids aren't going to damage the electronics, they already have current limiting. But simple salt water will turn copper conductors into green goo pretty well.

          Chewing gum stuffed into the USB port is likely the most common and hardest to solve problem there.

          Superglue. One quick squirt with a dollar store tube. And if someone comes along right behind you and plugs in before it sets, that's even more fun.

          but I'm not a vandal

          We can tell.

        • by twocows (1216842)
          That reminds me of this [krebsonsecurity.com] post by Brian Krebs. How hard would these things be to set up with some nefarious device that installs a Trojan on any phone that connects? I imagine a well-crafted overlay panel wouldn't be too hard to put on one of these things, or they could come by at night and just install it internally. Sounds too dangerous to me, I think they're going to find this is more trouble than it's worth.
          • by Narcocide (102829)

            I presume that it would be impossible to do without first removing the ones Cisco placed in there stock.

          • by tlhIngan (30335)

            That reminds me of this post by Brian Krebs. How hard would these things be to set up with some nefarious device that installs a Trojan on any phone that connects? I imagine a well-crafted overlay panel wouldn't be too hard to put on one of these things, or they could come by at night and just install it internally. Sounds too dangerous to me, I think they're going to find this is more trouble than it's worth.

            Except I'm fairly certain the vast majority of Android and iOS devices now ask for permission befor

      • by rnturn (11092)
        Forget liquids, though those could be a problem. Call me pessimistic but I predict that within weeks of rolling these out, each bench will have inoperable USB ports because the little plastic tabs in the connectors will be broken off. (Does anyone make a USB port with the internal tab made out of something more durable like nylon?) After a year, these could just be ordinary benches with some decorative but unusable electronics attached to them.
    • skateboarding can be a crime

    • by kheldan (1460303)
      Truth. We have public repair stations on our local bike paths, even including a pump for your tires. Which lasted a couple months before someone cut the hose off it, then someone else later on stole the whole pump. I'm waiting to see how long the cable-attached tools last before some skeeze steals those, too. In some of the same places there is a rediculous solar-powered recycle bin that supposedly compacts the cans and stuff you put in it. Waiting to see how long it is before some homeless guy breaks into
  • how long before the NSA hacks these into spy-benches?
    • by mi (197448)

      how long before the NSA hacks these into spy-benches?

      What makes you think, they aren't from day one? The write-up talks about "collecting and sharing data", and TFA says:

      The benches also connect wirelessly, using Verizon’s network, to the Internet to upload location-based environmental information, such as air quality and noise-level data. City officials said the first units in Boston will be funded by Cisco Systems, a leader in development of smart city solutions, at no cost to the city.

      Khm... At no

    • NSA, or someone with (even) fewer scruples. It's only a matter of time before people start getting free malware with their charge.

    • by ameline (771895)

      People are going to have to be smart (I know, it'll never happen) and use charge-only cables with the data lines physically disconnected.

      Then you'll have to trust whoever makes those.

      • by Obfuscant (592200)

        People are going to have to be smart (I know, it'll never happen) and use charge-only cables with the data lines physically disconnected.

        It is the data lines that convey the information to the device that it is on a charger and may draw whatever current it needs. This is one of the biggest headaches of USB charging, when a company uses one method of signalling "charger" and another uses a different one. E.g., a resistor to ground or +5 on one of the data lines vs. a resistor of a certain value vs. a resistor of a different value.

        Then there are oddball companies who decide they won't charge at all via USB unless they can negotiate a current

        • by aXis100 (690904)

          There are chips available that monitor the USB data lines for all of the available charging protocols (shorted - chinese, fixed resistance - android, fixed voltage - apple) and will then current limit appropriately.

          I'm also sure that i've seen a USB charging "condom" on slashdot before, which had two of the USB current limiting controllers back to back to allow charging to occur, whilst providing isolation of the data lines to prevent malicious data exchange.

      • You do realize that most phones use them to for simple communication of how many ma the charger can provide. Sure newer designs do not require that but I don't see apple changing anytime soon. Several companies make "condoms" that allow and even adapt those signals yet stay safe.

    • by Dishwasha (125561)

      Didn't you RTFA? They were built by Cisco.

    • by Minwee (522556)

      Who did _you_ think was paying for them?

      Also, did you know that you can charge your phone faster by enabling debug mode over USB? I read that on a flyer taped to one of those new benches in Boston...

  • by atheos (192468)
    Will these be with or with spikes?
  • Cities are putting all kinds of things in the middle of benches to prevent the homeless from sleeping upon them. But free WiFi! Shiny shiny.

  • So which bench is it?
    The one picture clearly has a giant solar panel lump, and plug, taking up a seat on the bench.
    The other picture is just a bench, with a square underneath it?
    Why wouldn't they have put a roof height solar panel? The big goofy thing on the bench is just asking to be used for a soda and food to get spilled on..
    AS well as takes away from it being a bench..
    Once it's had a few lunches and soda's spilled on it, I doubt the panel will be very efficient...

    • The first pic seems to be a solar bench that hasn't actually had the solar part installed yet, why the hell would they use that to illustrate the story? And newspapers wonder why they're struggling....

      Interesting idea, but these things will disappear about 10 minutes after Cisco gets tired of throwing money at them.
    • by tomhath (637240)

      A roof would have been a much better design. I'm not sure how many people who forget to charge their phones will remember to bring a USB charger to use while they wait for the bus. There will probably be an increase of lost phones on those benches too.

  • You're going to stick your USB *where* again?

    A Boston public park bench USB port?

    I'm not sure which kingdom of virii would be more nasty - animal, or electronic.

    Do they have USB condoms?

    • by Himmy32 (650060)
      Not so oddly enough, they do make them.

      http://www.amazon.com/PortaPow... [amazon.com]
    • by wizzy403 (303479)

      Actually, yes they do!

      http://int3.cc/products/usbcon... [int3.cc]

      A few other places make similar products. Blocks the data pins and just leaves the charging pins bare.

    • by fnj (64210)

      Do they have USB condoms?

      I was about to say if they don't, they should, suggesting all you need is to have ground and VCC connected and D+ and D- left open - but that's not the way it works! You might get 100 mA that way, or you might get nothing, but you'll never get the full 1/2 amp or the extended 1.8 amps that way. You need enough smarts in your "condom" to negotiate the current.

      But all is not lost. I second what the AC suggests: LockedUSB [lockedusb.com]. They have done the work and produced a neat little package, and

    • by itzly (3699663)
      Instead of worrying about the benches, wouldn't it be smarter to make a phone that doesn't send important information to any random charger ?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I wouldn't trust those park bench USB ports to not do something malicious to my phone (such as download data or install spyware). If I were ever to use one, I'd make sure to use the LockedUSB "firewall" which enables rapid charging while blocking the data lines. http://www.lockedusb.com

    • by mythosaz (572040)

      ...or, I'll just keep plugging my phone in at numerous public places that offer free charging, thus leaving me free to leave my tinfoil at at home.

  • Sounds like the perfect place to install some nearby dead drops [wikipedia.org].

  • Solar Freaking Benches
  • by Torp (199297) on Monday June 30, 2014 @12:33PM (#47351101)

    ... just use a cheap USB cable from a cheap charger that only has the GND and 5V wires to save costs :)
    No data exchange will be possible.
    Might still be good to disinfect it after each use.

    • You will wait quite a while to get a charge that way. The devices negotiate the charging current over the data lines. The default is either zero or 100 mA. Best to buy a purpose-made USB data isolator that negotiates a good rate with a built-in microcontroller, but doesn't connect the phone to the charger data lines.

      You can build one using a few resistors. See Adafruit's MintyBoost.

  • I couldn't help but read this article and think about the dismal state of batteries if being able to charge
    your cellphone in the park is necessary. I want a SMARTphone that I can be on all day and never goes
    dead as long as I charge it every night. The old non-smartphones could go a week between charges,
    now most cellphones can't even last a full day so things like randomly located 3rd party "charging ports"
    are considered a useful feature. Battery life is hurting innovation. We need to work to fix this.

    • www.zerolemon.com

      If you have a compatible phone (predominantly Samsung, though a handful of LG units are also in the mix), this solves the problem. It does keep your phone from being anorexically thin, but I personally don't mind the extra heft. I generally get between 2 and 3 days out of a charge. This past weekend it lasted an entire ten hour drive as a GPS Nav courtesy of Waze (meaning GPS receiver and screen on the entire time, both notorious power suckers), through areas with spotty cell reception. The

  • There is an outside power outlet at my local grocery store meant to be used for maintenance tools. The homeless direct each other to the power outlet and it creates an unintended consequence. It increases the presence of chronic drunks and addicts as well as the mentally ill and those who can not get employment due to criminal records. It doesn't make shoppers feel safe at all and is a negative for the business as well. It does mean that some sort of charging stations need to be placed near
    • by Lumpy (12016)

      What you are looking for is the return of "shanty towns" and your city has laws specifically banning them to make sure the homeless can not be in one spit with even a ramshackle roof over their heads.

  • by oneiros27 (46144) on Monday June 30, 2014 @12:51PM (#47351255) Homepage

    Okay, technically, they're trash compactors, so that they don't have to go and empty them as often:

    http://www.cityofboston.gov/pu... [cityofboston.gov]

    That seems to make more sense to me than a 'solar powered bench' which looks to me to be two seats as the whole middle of it's taken up by a box. (which might be the point -- it'd be less comfortable for a homeless person to sleep on it)

    I've seen other solar "urban furniture" that made more sense to me -- things like bus stops w/ solar panels in the roof (to power lighting, up-to-date bus info ... and sometimes advertising).

    I've seen other 'solar phone charging stations' that make more sense to me than having it take up 1/4 of a bench:

    http://inhabitat.com/nyc/solar... [inhabitat.com]

    http://www.gizmag.com/street-c... [gizmag.com]

    http://bostinno.streetwise.co/... [streetwise.co]

  • Putting solar panels into things that are usually shaded by other things.

    Why not make a roof for the bench out of solar panels instead?

  • "We are fortunate to have talented entrepreneurs and makers in Boston thinking creatively about sustainability and the next generation of amenities for our residents."

    Oh dear god, any high school student can make a bench "solar powered".

    • by iggymanz (596061)

      yes, slap a solar panel charged usb port on anything and it becomes "smart" and "sustainable" and "next generation"

      Coming to a park near you, the Smart and Sustainable Porta-Potty and the Smart and Sustainable Hot Dog Stand

  • Finally, a new definition for hobo power [urbandictionary.com]

At the source of every error which is blamed on the computer you will find at least two human errors, including the error of blaming it on the computer.

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