Category: Home / building automation and security

Smartphones and tablets now working with sensors and controllers

Introduction

A trend that we may be seeing with smartphones and similar devices is that they work with various third-party sensor or controlled devices through the use of various apps written by the sensor’s or controlled-device’s vendor. A main driver for this trend has been the “There’s an App for that” mentality that has been established around the Apple iPhone with that smartphone becoming the centrepiece of most people’s lives.

Examples of this include the recently-launched Parrot “ARDrone” remote-control helicopter that uses a dedicated Wi-Fi link to an iOS device running a special app that is its controller; a barbecue thermometer being launched at the Consumer Electronics Show 2011 that uses a Bluetooth link to an iOS device that acts as a remote temperature display. There were even other examples like the Nike running-shoe pedometer that uses a dedicated wireless link to an iPod Nano running an exercise-tracking application.

These applications may be novelty ideas of implementing an iOS or Android smartphone as a SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) device but there will be more applications that will become more real in our lives.

Examples application fields will include:

  • Food safety (thermometers that measure temperature for areas where perishable food is stored)
  • Personnel health and wellbeing (blood pressure and heart-rate monitors)
  • Building automation and security (dashboard apps that work with HVAC, security systems, smart meters and the like; garage door openers that work with a touchscreen smartphone)
  • Automotive and marine instrumentation (engine monitoring and diagnostics)

The current situation

The main problem is that whenever an application that works with an outbourd sensor or controlled device is developed, a lot of code is added to the program to work with the sensor or controlled device. This extra “bulk” is written by the app writer usually because the writer is the one who designs the device. The communications between these device and the host smartphone or tablet is typically using USB for wired connections; Bluetooth, dedicated or network-integrated Wi-Fi for wireless connections and the application developer has to work with the link that is appropriate to the device.

If the device designer wants to build a lively application-programming environment around the device, they have to either prepare a software development kit which usually requires the distribution of a runtime module with the application. This can take up memory and can put a strain on the battery life of the device.

What can be done

An improvement to this situation that would improve the lot for device designers and application developers who write SCADA for smartphones and tablets would be to establish a “driver” model for sensor and controlled devices.

Here, the operating system could run a “driver” for the application in a similar vein to how peripherals are managed by desktop operating systems. Here, the operating system can do things like manage the polling cycle for sensors or transmission of events to controlled devices, including responding to sensors that are set to trigger software events for the device class.

This can help with conserving battery power by disconnectiong from a sensor or controlled device if the destination apps aren’t run; or sharing data between two or more apps benefiting from the same sensor data. This could benefit some platforms, most notably Android, where one can write lightweight indicator applications like “widgets”, notification-area icons or active wallpapers which just benefit from sensor data or respond to certain conditions.

The problem is that the smartphone operating systems such as iOS and Android don’t support the same kind of programmatic modularity that desktop computing has permitted due to limitations placed on them by battery-operated handheld device designs with constrained memory and storage size. This issue may have to be examined whenever a subsequent major revision of the smartphone operating system is being worked on; and could include whether a separate “driver store” is maintained at the platform’s “app store” or that drivers are supplied as “apps”. This can then allow the manufacturers to update drivers as necessary, for example to add new functionality.

Conclusion

The idea of controlling or monitoring devices from computers or mobile devices is going to becoming something more mainstream rather than just a novelty and the operating system designers may have to factor this in to their designs.

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Wi-Fi and HomePlug collaborate on the smart-grid aspect of the connected home

Articles

WiFi, HomePlug Collaboration Facilitates Interoperability of Smart Grid Applications -  SmartGrid.TMCNET.COM

Wi-Fi, HomePlug Alliances Collaborate On Smart Grid Apps – InformationWeek.com

Wi-Fi strikes alliance with mains networking tech – The Register (UK)

From the horse’s mouth

Wi-Fi Alliance® and HomePlug® Powerline Alliance Collaborate on Connected Smart Home – HomePlug Powerline Alliance

My comments

This news article is certainly placing the two main “no-new-wires” network technologies that exist in most home networks as being able to have their place in the “smart-grid” home-automation and energy-management scenario.

General home-network applications

From what I have read in this article and also from my experience with handling home networks, the Wi-Fi wireless technology and the HomePlug powerline technology are considered as established “no-new-wires” connection methods in this class of network. This is typified with most network-Internet “edge” devices being Wi-Fi wireless routers and nearly all laptops currently in use being equipped with some form of Wi-Fi technology. As well, most mobile-phone contracts that have been signed are for phones that are equipped with Wi-Fi technology alongside the cellular-phone technology.

Similarly, HomePlug AV has been considered as a data transfer medium for bringing IPTV to the main lounge area. This has become more so in Europe with the “triple-play” service providers who are using the home network to distribute TV. Here, they use a HomePlug AV connection to provide a network link from the network-Internet “edge” router to an IPTV set-top box in the lounge area to obviate the need for users to run Ethernet wiring to achieve the same purpose.

The main benefit of HomePlug is that it makes use of existing AC wiring including extension cords, which can become data+power cables. I have talked about this as a preferred solution with multi-building home networks where it is not worth the cost or effort to run Cat5 Ethernet cable to an existing outbuilding and Wi-Fi wireless wouldn’t work well with some buildings like “quick-assemble” garages or static caravans because of their metal construction.

Smart-grid applications

Both technologies would complement each other in the smart-grid space.

One main use for Wi-Fi would be smartphones and other programmable devices as consumer-facing energy monitors. Here, this application would capitalise on the installed base of laptops, netbooks, smartphones and tablet computers that have integrated Wi-Fi functionality as well as the Wi-Fi segment of the home network rather than having to reinvent the wheel.

As well, once manufacturers work on Wi-Fi chipsets that can work for a long time on two AA batteries or a regular “button-cell” watch battery, Wi-Fi could become a “sensor and control network” in its own right. Here, it could be feasible to use it as part of wireless movement sensors, thermostatic radiator valves, wireless room-temperature sensors and the like.

There is also a subset of the HomePlug technologies being developed to replace the role of the old X10 home-control system as data-transfer conduits for AC-wire-based home automation. This could lead to affordable home-automation systems that work hand-in-glove with the smart grid. Common application examples would include the ability to have appliances like washing machines, dishwashers, and pool-filter pumps come on when the off-peak tariffs apply or air-conditioners go in to “set-back” but with the fan running during a high-demand period where the utility wants to apply “load-shedding” measures.

Similarly, the management of electric-vehicle charging will be achieved through HomePlug technology as the primary data conduit for the command-and-control data. This will also be important for vehicles that are managed as part of a fleet and for countries that want to make sure that they tax the fuel that is used by road vehicles ostensible for maintaining the roads.

Conclusion

At least the new “smart-grid” applications are becoming another area where the dominant “no-new-wires” network technologies are able to have a foothold in and thus avoid reinventing the wheel with.

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Use of the Ekahau Real-Time Location System in a residential or small-business environment

I have been talking by e-mail to Mika Kouhia from Ekahau about the use of their WiFi-based real-time location technology in the typical home or small-business network. The applications that may come to mind here will typically cover an emergency-response / nurse-call system that is an integral part of the at-home care of elderly, infirm or convalescing people; or small businesses, especially those who are partners to large business, who need to track assets in a similar manner to what is done by large organisations.

What is the main complication that concerns the Ekahau Real-Time Location System

The main complication that limits this technology is the fact that most of the wireless networks deployed in this space only have one access point, typically the one that is integrated in to a wireless router. You may be lucky to use this technology on a wireless network that has an extra access point such as a wireless router that is repurposed as an extension access point and connected to the main router via a HomePlug powerline link or one of those access points that work with a HomePlug powerline backbone.  On the other hand, you would have to deploy “infrared beacons” around the premises and rely on the Wi-Fi wireless link provided by the router as primarily a communications link.

The infrared beacons work on a similar infrared frequency to the remote controls used to control the majority of TV sets and other consumer-electronics devices in circulation. Thus they won’t interfere with the passive-infrared sensors used in most security systems or automatic “sensor-light” setups because these sensors are tuned to an infrared frequency emitted as part of body heat.

The primary reason for implementing the technology in the home

Ekahau T301BD Wi-Fi Pager Tag

The primary implementation that I was talking about with Mika was to use their T301BD Wi-Fi Pager Tag which hangs around the neck of a person. This tag has an integrated display and two function buttons that also work as emergency-call buttons. As well, if the tag is pulled on the neckstrap, it can initiate an emergency response. The tag supports direct paging with push-button response, which can allow it to work with a “response-check” setup where if the user doesn’t respond within a certain time to a call, the system initiates emergency action. The display could come in handy by showing the person’s name, which would be a good help with people who have memory-loss disorders.

In this implementation, there may be the need to establish Internet access to the pager tag in order to permit this device to work as part of a solution provided by an external service provider. This may involve use of hardware or software on the network that provides at least dynamic DNS functionality and integration with UPnP IGD-enabled routers to provide access to the tag. The functionality could be extended to provide local nurse-call functionality with in-house location display through a local screen and / or Web page available through the home network.

Similarly, the pager tag could work with other technology to assist people who have memory-loss disorders by enabling the use of electronically-generated “reminder screens” for particular tasks. This is relevant to an article that I wrote about in my blog concerning technology that is to assist the elderly in their daily lives. Here, I had talked about a kitchen equipped with various technologies like pico-projection systems, RFID and Wii-style motion sensors to provide reminders through different food-preparation tasks.

How this could be taken further

Ekahau should then consider studying this application as a technology that suits the current home-driven health-care direction.

Here, we are dealing with an older population as people of the baby boom move in to the later years of life and more people live longer. As well, there is more emphasis on home-based health-care so as to provide patients with the dignity of being looked after in their own home environment. This also includes an emphasis on independent living for elderly people, including having younger relatives be part of the older person’s life in a support role.

Similarly, there are disabled or chronically-ill people who want to be in the familiarity of their own home and family and these people can be able to work as carers, whether alone or alongside paid staff members who work on a rostered system.

The supporting software could be integrated in to computing devices that work on any of the common desktop-computing, handheld-computing, set-top box or embedded-device platforms in order to establish an assistive-technology ecosystem in the home.

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Use of WiFi technology for safety and security

Ekahau Enhances Staff Safety of Hospital Psychiatric Wards

My comments on this issue

The Ekahau press release that is linked to from this article details the use of a WiFi-based staff badge that can be used to locate particular staff members in the hospital’s psychiatric ward and deliver messages to them.  But the feature that drew me to this device was the remote panic-alarm functionality that sends its signal via the hospital’s WiFi network.

Any panic-alarm or medical-alert system that is deployed in the home typically requires a transmitter and receiver working on a dedicated frequency, in a similar manner to garage-door openers.  If they are monitored by an external agency, the devices then transmit their alert signal to the monitoring station via a dedicated telephone or cellular circuit.

Now there is a different reality being brought about with cost-effective Internet service provided to WiFi-based wireless home networks in many households. This has included the concept of providing telephone and multi-channel television service through the same pipe, all thanks to the magic of IP-based packet networks. The classic circuit-based signalling methods used by these alarm devices are becoming less relevant in the packet-based signalling. Similarly, most users will want to benefit from the infrastructure that is laid down in a home network, such as the establishment of a multi-access-point WiFi network with a HomePlug-based backbone to cover a difficult house.

The Ekahau setup could be scaled back to allow an alarm installer or broadband Internet provider to sell a similar system in to the home. Any moveable sensor like a medical-alert pendant could make use of the existing WiFi network for transferring its data to the monitoring facility. It could then lead to e-mail and / or text (SMS) messaging if the device is triggered. Similarly, the unit could be used to deal with “wandering” behaviour that can be part of dementia-related illnesses by alerting if the person goes out of range of the WiFi network. As well, such systems could support local monitoring through the use of a local server device, thus providing their output through a Web page, platform-specific “widget” or desktop application.

This setup may appeal to broadband providers who want to gain more “average revenue per unit” by reselling basic security services as part of their package. It could also be a way of achieving a legitimate upgrade path for currently-deployed building security systems, especially in the context of the “switched-on” Internet-enabled home.

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Recent research projects that lead to independent and dignified living for the elderly and disabled

The kitchen that keeps an eye on Alzheimer’s patients by using digital technology | Mail Online

Elderly shoppers to get ‘sat nav’ gadget to find their way around supermarkets | Daily Telegraph

My Comments

These projects that have been recently developed in the UK are implementing technologies that may be trivialised by most of us in order to help elderly and disabled people gain the right to a dignified lifestyle.

For example, the kind of motion detectors used in the Nintendo Wii’s controllers or those new pocket projectors that may only have trivial uses are being implemented in the kitchen to help Alzheimers patients know their way around cooking processes. Similarly, the use of GPS and cellular location technology is being implemented to help older people navigate the typically-large supermarket which has layouts that change at the whim of the product managers.

The home network can be the key backbone of these assistive technologies by being a data conduit and a gateway to the Internet. It doesn’t matter whether it is based on hardwired Ethernet, WiFi wireless technology or existing-wire technologies like HomePlug power-line or MoCA coaxial cabling; or a mixture of these technologies.

Yet there are some challenges that need to be achieved to make this kind of idea feasible at a cost-effective level and in a wife-friendly attractive manner.

One challenge could be one or more standard computing platforms for building security and automation applications, in a similar vein to what has happened for home and office computing setups; handheld devices like smartphones and PDAs; and network-attached storage devices. This would allow for heterogenous systems that work with hardware and software from different manufacturers to suit the specific and evolving needs of householders and building owners.

Another would be to encourage the development and commercialisation of indoor location technology in conjunction with common smartphone platforms as a way of allowing one to navigate large shops. This could then be implemented through a piece of software that is loaded on to a common smartphone device and the maps being available through the Internet or similar means.

Another would be to encourage the support of  building security and automation as well as home IT as a key to improving the quality of living for the elderly and disabled amongst us. This would have to include encouraging the state’s social-welfare arm and the charity sector, both secular and faith-based, to provide access to these technologies.

The effort would certainly go a long way to providing a dignified and independent lifestyle for an older population which will certainly increase as the baby-boom generation enters the senior years.

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