Smart home devices could save energy and help seniors age in place


Smart home devices could save energy and help seniors age in place

Smart home devices could save energy and help seniors age in place

The smart grid-enabled switches can be used to control home energy use and manage a fleet of gadgets, including thermostats and appliances.

An Illinois initiative is exploring how the devices could also improve life for seniors and provide more independence to people with disabilities.

Manufacturers have struggled to generate interest in their products among seniors and people with disabilities, but some researchers and health care professionals think the devices, with the right adaptations, could make life safer and easier for those consumers.

“They weren’t designed to accommodate their needs and preferences, but rather those of more tech-savvy consumers like the millennials,” said Doug Newman, program director for the Seniors Independent Living Collaborative.

Newman’s program is funded by the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation, which also provides funding for Midwest Energy News.

The initiative is an interdisciplinary collaboration amongst family and consumer science researchers, gerontologists, and engineers from Eastern Illinois University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Partnership for Intelligent Energy Efficiency and the Seniors Independent Living Collaborative. Ameren is a utility collaborator on the project.

Utilities have similarly struggled to get seniors and people with disabilities to adopt smart home devices, but Newman said their research suggests that could change if the products were marketed more directly to those groups. The potential benefits include allowing family members to check-in remotely via the devices.

The group for more than a year has been conducting focus groups and examining how to make the smart devices easier to use by seniors and those with disabilities — for example, by enlarging the screens and buttons and streamlining the user experience.

In January, the team will launch a two-year program to design fresh consumer resources, training material for installers, and build a consumer test lab to evaluate devices and new designs.

The research and designs will be funneled back to Ameren and the device manufacturers.

“Seniors are the fastest growing segment in the state and in the country,” Newman said. “These devices can really help reach them, but in their current state they are not designed to do that easily. The learning curve is too great.”

Senior market largely untapped

The market for seniors is vast and expanding as Baby Boomers age. In 2010, there were 40 million American seniors, and that number is expected to more than double in the next three decades. A survey by AARP found that 87 percent of adults older than 65 would prefer to stay in their current home and community.

“People want to live more independently, so the number one priority is their safety,” said Peter Ping Liu, director of the Center for Clean Energy Research and Education at Eastern Illinois University. “We will explore how smart home systems can make people safe and secure—for their concern and for their caregivers.”

Safety features could include remote detection light systems that are outfitted to turn on when a person wakes up at night. Another is a notification system to alert caretakers when help is needed.

“What happens if your electricity goes out at night and you are on oxygen?” said Linda Simpson, a family and consumer researcher atEastern Illinois University. “The smart grid can pinpoint that and an alarm can go off.”

Utilities already keep track of seniors who have power-sensitive medical devices and will dispatch people in the case of an outage, but the smart grid could provide another level of security, Newman said.

Focus groups

On November 30, researchers hosted two consumer focus group sessions at the Center for Clean Energy Research and Education at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. The event was billed as a smart grid consumer independence project.

The goal of the session was to assess what seniors and people with disabilities were taking away from smart grid marketing materials. Participants were asked to navigate Ameren’s online account and use a home energy management device.

The devices attached to Ameren’s smart meters sat on long conference tables surrounded by pastries and other snacks. The benefits of the smart home devices are not always self-evident, and the participants provided feedback as they set-up the system and read through brochures.

Martha Brown, 66, said she had concerns about security but liked the idea of using the online account to guide her decision making.

“Right now, I get a bill, but I don’t know how to make that go up or down in a way that suits me” she said. “If I had this [unit], I’d make better planning choices.”

Gayle Strader, an 80-year old resident of Charleston, didn’t want any new gadgets.

“I use my computer and my smartphone,” Strader said. “I’m trying to get rid of things in my house. I think for another generation, it might be fine.”

The focus group wasn’t designed to sell the equipment, but some people were impressed.

Katie Armstrong, 71, thought it was a great idea.

“I would be interested in having the system that they showed us and that [smart] meter in my home,” Armstrong said.

Organizers said they came away with useful information from the feedback and observations. Kathleen O’Rourke works with Simpson as a professor and graduate coordinator atEastern Illinois University’s School of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“It allowed us to meet [the participants] where they are at in terms of their residential living environments,” O’Rourke said.

Mary Irwin is a case manager for CCAR Industries, a client and family support facility in Charleston. She brought a dozen clients to participate in a separate focus group geared towards those with disabilities.

The energy management units were “a good starting point,” she said, but one obstacle could be the language used in the materials, which she said was too complicated and relied on too much jargon.

“Everyone is into gadgets and these folks more than anyone,” she said. “If that control can lead to more independence – that’s good for everyone.”

By Kevin Stark


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How will both software and hardware components need to expand to meet the demands of IoT and smart home automation?


How will both software and hardware components need to expand to meet the demands of IoT and smart home automation?

How will both software and hardware components need to expand to meet the demands of IoT and smart home automation?

By John Weber, IoT Technical Solutions Manager, Avnet

That is a great question. Personally, even though I’ve been working on IoT at Avnet for a couple of years now, I am not an early adopter myself of smart home automation. Why? Because I want Nirvana, and I suspect most customers will as well.

Where are we today? People like to use words like “fragmented” and “diverse” to describe it. Many companies are competing for the ‘hub’ of the system, and there are competing wireless standards as well such as WiFi, Bluetooth Mesh, Z-wave, Thread, and ZigBee to name a few. This amounts to a tangled web of standards, software, and vendors. To reach the Nirvana I described above, I would probably need three or four hubs to manage each major system, each of which would need to communicate with my router, and none of this implements a locally autonomous system as a whole.

Can we get to Nirvana? It will happen. On the software side, there is good news. We are already seeing many vendors integrate with the major automation cloud services like Apple Homekit, Amazon Alexa, and Google Assistant. However, we need to see coalescence of wireless standards. Once we have one, or at most two, accepted wireless standards, in addition to WiFi, then the major consumer router manufacturers will jump into the fray with products that can communicate and control most connected devices, driving the price down.

Finally, the home automation gateways (as I think routers will eventually become) will have to be intelligent in their own right. There needs to be local (in-house) processing to be able to handle video security tasks; enact automation rules, such as what to do if a user flicks a light switch; and so on. This will happen soon, and then my home automation will have reached Nirvana.

By David West, Director of Professional Services, Icon Labs

IoT devices are predominantly price-sensitive and deployed outside of a secure perimeter with a very long life cycle. In most cases, cost, more than any other factor, drives security component selection.

When choosing between hardware or software, the best solution is to build security into the device and not depend upon the perimeter. Typically, on-device security is an order-of-magnitude lower cost. Addressing basic security needs like an embedded firewall and secure boot cost-effectively protect the device from both inside and outside attacks.

Likely candidates for hardware solutions include Physically Unclonable Functions (PUF), Trusted Platform Module (TPM), and TrustZone.

PUF uses random patterns in the silicon to differentiate chips from each other and to create a unique random number. The generated random number is used to seed a strong device ID and cryptographic keys creating a hardware root of trust.

Security co-processors are physically separate chips offering true isolation of private keys. A TPM offers isolation along with crypto functionality, key generation, and secure storage. However, its cost usually moves it to higher end IoT devices.

Trust Zone is another single chip solution that segregates execution space into secure and insecure worlds. Unsecure apps can’t access security-critical assets. Those same security critical assets are isolated from tampering. Like a TPM, cost moves it to higher end devices.

Software security provides a layer of protection at a much lower cost while offering a broader range of options compared to hardware. Frequent candidates for software security include a firewall blocking unwanted packets, TLS/SSH for secure communication, intrusion detection, and management functions. Compared to hardware solutions, software may consume more power.

Ultimately, some combination of hardware and software will be required. Only the system designer will be able to make that determination based upon costs and likely attack vectors.

By Cristian Ionescu-Catrina, Sr. Marketing Manager, Home Appliances

The cloud with its huge amount of resources brings the promise to provide almost endless processing and storage, however not for free. There are also situations when the connectivity link may not reliably work, depriving connectivity dependent smart devices of their “smart” appeal.

Today’s smart hub refrigerator concept represents a good example for connectivity dependency with at least three embedded cameras always sending pictures to the cloud, where also the vision processing software is running. With huge amount of data /device sent to the cloud and full cloud dependency for image processing such solution is difficult to scale to millions of devices both from cost and operability perspective.

We believe that a hybrid approach will be able to address above challenges. By using a hybrid solution, the vision processing task is partitioned into two pieces: embedded-AI on the edge, which is focusing on decisions the software has been trained for, and the cloud, where the machine learning/improvement resides. In the case of the fridge, the embedded-AI can identify items which are stored on a regular basis and are already a part of the library (For example eggs, milk, or soda cans). In this case, cloud connectivity and processing is not needed.

However, as soon as there is a new food item/brand in the refrigerator which the embedded-AI can’t recognize, the edge will provide the images to the cloud which in turn will try to classify the data. As a result, the total cost of ownership goes down and the edge increases its operability. We envision future MCU and MPU will integrate dedicated hardware IP blocks which will be a (partial) hardcoded implementation of popular artificial intelligence software, like voice or image.

By Mark Tekippe, Senior Marketing Manager, IoT Wireless Products, Silicon Labs

The smart home is one of the fastest growing IoT segments with billions of new connected devices expected between now and 2025. Several analyst reports estimate the average smart home will include from 50 to 100+ connected devices including appliances, lighting, security systems, and a myriad of wireless sensors. This rapid growth will only be possible through advancements in hardware and software components to address the following key needs: simple installation, seamless interoperability, uncompromised security, device management for field updates, and ultra-low power.

Simple installation and seamless interoperability of IoT products across different manufacturers and wireless protocols are essential. The advent of multiprotocol, multiband wireless SoCs will enable device manufacturers to support multiple connectivity interfaces like WiFi, Bluetooth, and 802.15.4 (ZigBee/Thread) in their products while keeping device hardware costs in check. For example, connected products will be able to leverage Bluetooth for simple setup via a smart phone and 802.15.4 for reliable, scalable mesh networking with other devices—without significantly impacting device cost. In addition to supporting common RF protocols, true interoperability requires devices to speak a “common language,” which requires standardization at the application layer (i.e. dotdot, Weave, and OCF). Multiple “languages” will co-exist in the home, and automation software platforms will need to manage protocol translation.

Uncompromised security demands continuous innovation in both hardware and software. Advanced hardware cryptography, integrated secure elements, secure firmware updates, physical tamper detection, and end-to-end (device-to-cloud) IP security are some of the key features required to secure the connected home.

Device management is imperative to provide reliable and secure mechanisms to update firmware on devices long after they are initially sold and deployed in a home. Similar to how mobile app developers frequently push updates to their apps, connected product manufacturers need the ability to enhance product functionality and address bugs and security vulnerabilities without requiring a truck roll or product return.

Finally, nobody wants to replace batteries on hundreds of products in their home. Improvements in battery technology, energy harvesting, and low-power operation of wireless SoCs and sensors will extend battery life and enable large-scale networks in the home.

The future of home automation is bright, but also highly dependent on hardware and software innovation to bring home automation to the mainstream and realize the smart home vision.

By Bill Steinike, Vice President of Business Development, Laird Connectivity

Consumers have high expectations for these products and are savvy buyers because of the time they invest researching products. I see four key criteria that engineers should focus on to meet those rising expectations.

Security is critical, but can’t be at the expense of making the commissioning difficult or laborious. In some products, enhanced security has come at the cost of a more cumbersome implementation process for customers. But a straight-forward commissioning approach should not be readily sacrificed to achieve improved security; after all, it is the first experience the user will have with the product and plays such a big role in overall customer experience. Security and ease-of-use don’t need to be in opposition to one another, though. The most successful products will be the ones that offer both intuitive, scalable commissioning, and security features that can respond to evolving threats.

Another key factor in a product’s success is wireless performance as reliable and robust as wired installations. Consumers no longer grade wireless products on a curve. They simply must perform as well as any other device. Luckily, advancements in WiFi with features like MU-MIMO and the upcoming 802.11ax standards, Bluetooth 5.0 and its inclusion of longer range and higher data-rate capabilities, and the variety of options for LPWAN technologies like LoRa will better enable performance along with required interoperability.

Another area where customers are very savvy is battery life. It’s a key buying criteria for the consumer electronics they purchase, and the same is true for home automation products. Hardware must achieve better battery efficiency, especially for relatively power-hungry technologies like WiFi that have a broad appeal to many developers. Customers won’t tolerate the hassle or expense of frequent battery changes.

The last thing that I will mention is real-time locationing. Improvements in the performance and cost to make indoor locationing capabilities more widely adopted could vastly improve the user experience for many dynamic IoT applications, particularly in building and home automation.

Top reasons homeowners love smart technology!


Top reasons homeowners love smart technology!

From climate and lighting upgrades to security and entertainment features, homeowners are embracing smart technology when renovating their homes.

According to the Houzz Smart Home Trends survey, nearly half of all homeowners are incorporating smart technology when undergoing renovation, but one expert believes the numbers are even higher.

“I would say it’s even more than 50 percent,” said Shawn Hansson, chief executive officer and founder of Logic Integration, a Colorado audiovisual and automation firm specializing in the design and installation of easy-to-use technology in homes and businesses.

One reason is that manufacturers are making it easy to get in on the trend, with smart devices available across a spectrum of price points, Hansson said.

Just the beginning

Renovated homes are more than twice as likely to include a smart system or device than before the renovation (51 versus 20 percent, respectively, according to the survey). Nearly a third of upgraded smart home systems or devices can be controlled via a central hub (30 percent), and a quarter include voice-controlled features (26 percent).

“The trend is only going to get bigger,” Hansson said. As homeowners dip their toes into the smart home market with relatively inexpensive upgrades like replacing light switches, they find themselves wanting more, he said.

New smart systems or devices are most likely to be added as part of home security or safety upgrades, followed by entertainment, climate and lighting upgrades. Smart thermostats are the single most popular smart device in a renovated home.

“Homeowners aim to improve the comfort, convenience, safety and energy usage of their home during their renovations, and smart technology appears to address many of their needs,” said Nino Sitchinava, principal economist at home design and decor site Houzz. “While many homeowners report difficulty learning about and finding the right smart products to fit their needs, high levels of adoption and satisfaction among renovators are sound predictors of a wider reliance on these technologies among the general public in the near future.

Ease and security

Amazon Echo, one of last year’s hottest Christmas gifts, is also one of the easiest for homeowners to use, Hansson said. The voice-powered wonder has become an essential part of a connected home, allowing users to interact with their home devices by speaking to Alexa, the device’s virtual assistant. Place the Echo or smaller Dot around the home to play music, set alarms, control lighting and perform thousands of other skills.

“You’re in the kitchen and see you’re running low on paper towels; simply say, ‘Alexa, order more paper towels.’ People love the convenience,” Hansson said.

Safety and security are big selling points, Hansson said. The report found that homeowners want smart technology to protect their homes against intruders (67 percent) and monitor or control the safety of their home when they are away (52 percent) or at home (30 percent). Protection against intruders is a stronger motivation for those installing smart security and safety features than those installing non-smart options (67 versus 51 percent, respectively).

When it comes to smart entertainment devices, improving the experience (80 percent) or the comfort of the home (55 percent), and the desire to have the latest technology or to change the mood or vibe of the home are paramount (27 percent each).

Install tips

The majority of renovating homeowners rely on professional help for the installation of both smart and non-smart security, climate control and lighting products, though they are even more likely to turn to pros in the case of smart technology upgrades in these categories.

“Security all comes down to the network,” said Hansson, who urged homeowners to use professional installers. “The networks that get hacked are most often the ones that homeowners have set up themselves.”

By Melissa Erickson, More Content Now

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