What Is That Ominous New Device on Street Lights?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
May 24 2012 4:46 PM

What’s That Thing? Ominous Gizmo Edition

Gizmo

Photo: Nathan Kilger

The third entry in an occasional series examining mysterious or overlooked objects in our visual landscape. If you would like to suggest an object for the series, see the email address provided at the bottom of this post.

So far, in our efforts to better understand the things we see—but don’t necessarily notice—we’ve looked at a surprisingly helpful triangle and some unexpectedly meaningful wires. This week, we’re once again looking up.

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The picture above was sent in by Nathan Kilger, a resident of Ashland, Wisconsin. Attached to a lamppost is a gizmo the purpose of which is as mysterious as the etymology of the word “gizmo.” Mr. Kilger first noticed these devices a few years ago atop various structures in his area of northern Wisconsin, around the time that the Border Patrol seemed to be, for some reason, building up its presence in the state.

Mr. Kilger also noted the apparent spread of such devices in recent years—a possibly ominous development: That gizmo, tucked somewhat out of view, hardly looks innocent. The notion that it’s some kind of all-seeing Mordor eye for the digital age is more compelling given its positioning on such an everyday item as a street lamp (unless that’s a missile battery, cleverly disguised as a street lamp).

So what is it? As always, a few guesses:

a) It’s part of a supplementary communication network for first-responders. These devices keep communication lines open for emergency services even if cell phone networks are overloaded or disabled.

b) Antennas like the one pictured help the microchips that the CIA implanted in your molars communicate with HQ at Langley. Future two-way versions will allow the military-industrial complex to transmit voting instructions and patriotic chants directly to your brain.

c) It’s a high-tech meter reading collector, gathering gas and electric usage data from nearby homes, and zapping it all to utility companies.

d) Ever drive over one of those random cables across a road, attached to a box on one curb, which are used to measure traffic flow? These devices are the high-tech version: They transmit not just the quantity of cars but the average speed, average wait time, and lots of other data—in real time.

And the answer is…

c). It’s a “collector unit” for electronic meters. Increasingly common across the country, devices like this one capture data from utility meters in nearby homes. Liz Wolf Green, a spokeswoman for Xcel Energy, a utility company, explains that such home meters

have a small built-in transmitter, which transmits the meter read to these collectors, which normally cover approximately a ½-mile radius. The collectors then transmit the meter readings to a master controller, which then sends the info via phone lines to a main computer.

At first glance, the devices look to be as expensive as they are suspicious. But, unless you’re currently employed as a meter-reader, electronic meters have some compelling advantages. They measure consumption faster and more accurately than people do—and can perform in weather that would delay manual inspections, a win for both customers and utilities. They also eliminate the inconvenience, however minor, of having a utility employee come near or inside your home—and the possibility of a criminal impersonating a utility employee. They make meter tampering more difficult, too.

Such devices are fairly common. Steve Roalstad, another spokesperson for Xcel, points out that they’re widely used throughout their eight-state service area, and might be regarded as the “first generation” of “smart meters,” the precursors of new, interactive, two-way meters that help homes and businesses reduce energy consumption.

Bonus What’s That Thing: What are the little dishes pointing up and down? They’re not the actual antennas, says Steve. “The dishes you see are called ‘grounding planes,’ which serve to improve the RF [radio frequency] signals.” There you have it.

Wondering what something is, but afraid (as you probably should be) to ask the CIA directly? Send a picture and a brief description to whatisthat@markvr.com

Mark Vanhoenacker is a writer in New York. Follow him on Twitter.