This week's Around Town looks at what Palo Alto is doing to prepare for autonomous robots, offers an update on the flood-control project around San Francisquito Creek and explores how Stanford University is using fiber to detect earthquakes thousands of miles away.
RISE OF THE ROBOTS ... Humans of Palo Alto, beware! Robots are targeting your streets. According to planning staff, the city has received inquiries from several autonomous-robot operators who want to pilot their devices on city streets. To be fair, these robots aren't exactly replicants or Terminators. Their speeds top out about 4 mph and their main function, to date, is delivering groceries and restaurant takeout. But because the technology is still new and relatively untested, city leaders wants to be sure that any operator of a "personal delivery device" — as these robots are called — first get a permit from the Development Center and commit to a list of conditions, including one that limits their speeds to 3.5 feet per second (or 2.4 mph) when on sidewalks, ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act or crosswalks. The city would issue these permits on a pilot basis, with the program expiring at the end of 2018, according to a proposal that the City Council is expected to approve Monday night. According to the Department of Planning and Community Environment, pilot programs of this sort are already underway in Concord, Foster City, Redwood City, San Carlos, Sunnyvale and Walnut Creek. To date, there haven't been any reported insurrections by the robots or any other major issues. However, there are reports coming out of Redwood City about some issues between robot-pedestrian and robot-motorist interactions, where the robots allegedly "failed to take the right-of-way when appropriate," according to planning staff. In Palo Alto, these devices would be primarily limited to sidewalks, crosswalks and other areas typically used for pedestrians, rather than streets or bike lanes, according to staff. The city would have the power to cancel these permits at any time, without notice.
FLOOD CONTROL ... The San Francisco Joint Powers Authority held the last of three public meetings requesting public input on San Francisquito Creek flood control on Wednesday night. The first meeting on Oct. 4 presented five alternatives related to upper-creek flood management, including the possible removal of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge. Community suggestions expanded the alternatives to 16, which includes widening the creek in some locations, building underground bypass culverts around the bridge and acquiring and building collection ponds upstream on Stanford University property. A bus tour of the creek and its choke points took place on Oct. 14. Wednesday's meeting focused on what community members prefer for implementation. Residents said they wanted an environmentally friendly flood wall where one is needed, recreational opportunities along the creekside during non-flood months, a full analysis of the hydrology and geomorphology for each alternative to reduce sediment buildup and erosion, consideration of the potential "take" of private property and construction impacts, which should be clearly considered and communicated well in advance. The alternatives will all be evaluated in the Draft Environmental Impact Report, which is expected to be released for public comment next year. For additional information, visit sfcjpa.org.
PREPARING FOR THE BIG ONE ... While multiple massive earthquakes in Mexico last month were more than 2,000 miles away from Palo Alto, the temblors were detected from a 3-mile loop of optical fiber installed under Stanford University. The fibers, laid out in a figure eight, are the same ones that deliver high-speed internet and high-definition video to homes. They were installed in September 2016 under a project led by geophysics professor Biondo Biondi and his team that have been using laser interrogators to track their movement. The dense network of a "billion sensors" has picked up 800 events, man-made and natural, in the past year. One of the most significant discoveries came from two small local earthquakes picked up by the fibers that came in at magnitudes of 1.6 and 1.8. "This demonstrates that fiber optic seismic observatory can correctly distinguish between different magnitude quakes," Biondi said in a press release. The professor hopes the observatory can build a case for creating a seismic network for the Bay Area. "Civil engineers could take what they learn about how buildings and bridges respond to small earthquakes from the billion-sensors array and use that information to design buildings that can withstand greater shaking," said Eileen Martin, a graduate student in Biondi's lab.