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  July 30, 2014

Are solar panelled USB benches a thing of the future?

soofa

A solar panelled USB bench sounds a bit odd at first. Why on earth would we need these fancy gadgets replacing the good old wooden bench? Well, a group of researchers from MIT in the US think their product can do exactly that.

The ‘Soofa’ is fitted with two USB ports, solar panels, and data collection technology making it far more than a standard bench. In fact its inventors believe that it could well be the future and a driver for accessible renewable energy. In this article we will discuss whether this will be a flash-in-the-pan idea or if it could be something more important.

What the Soofa does

At first sight the Soofa looks like an ordinary bench, a place to read your newspaper or watch the joggers running by. But if you look a little closer you will notice two USB charging points which are completely free to use for anyone who may need to charge their smartphone or tablet.

soofa-battery

This is an awesome and progressive idea, and one which benefits all of society. Being able to chill out in the park and charge up is something that nobody will say is a bad idea. But there is a lot more to it than that. As well as having two USB charger points, the Soofa bench also:

  • Has sensors to monitor environmental data such as noise pollution and air quality
  • Gathers data to show how much renewable energy the Soofa is generating for the public
  • Counts the number of daily visitors as well as the amount of people passing by
  • Predicts the weather forecast for the next four hours

All this data can then be accessed by the authorities and public who are interested in the green credentials of the area.

It’s a good idea… but is it necessary?

It is possible to be walking around or near a park and you run out of battery on your smartphone. If that were the case and there was a bench near-by then it would be perfect, you’d say “thank God for the Soofa”! But in reality this problem has already been solved. Nowadays you can buy a lightweight battery pack for a very reasonable price and have two smartphone charges in your bag.

soofa-usb-bench

You don’t need to look for a bench and then wait until somebody has finished using it. We live in a fast moving society and a lot of professionals are not going to have the time to sit and wait on a park bench until they’re fully charged. A charger pack is far more useful to a modern day professional who needs to charge on the go.

Will they last?

At the moment there are only a few benches based exclusively in Boston. But the company has said that they want to expand (they are currently running an online poll to decide where to put the next one). Unfortunately lots of public installations suffer from graffiti and general public nuisance. It’s hard to see how something as small and intricate as a USB port would survive the perils of bored teenagers.

However, the small parts of the bench have all been manufactured by a 3D printer making it quick and easy to reproduce parts locally. However the question of how often these parts will have to be replaced will be important to their success.

Privacy problems

A few problems have been raised around privacy. As these benches are such high tech (as discussed earlier) and they receive phone signals to collect data on the number of users and those that pass by. It is not known if any other data is going to be collected.

Even if this particular company doesn’t collect data – it is a real concern as these ideas of social technology gain momentum.

Are you keen for green?

If living a green lifestyle is important to you then having a Soofa bench in your local park would be really useful. Aside from the fact that you can charge your mobile phone with completely green power from the inbuilt solar panels, you can monitor how green or how dirty your city really is.

So… are solar panelled USB benches really a thing of the future?

There can be no doubt that the idea is fantastic. As the Boston Mayor Walsh said: “There can be no more excuses from teenagers playing in the park and not ringing home because of a flat battery.” But in the real world where we always need to be somewhere and having a portable USB battery pack is far more ideal.

But it is evident that having access to USB ports wherever you may be is becoming a necessity in the 21st century.