Most consumers only look at their energy use once a year on the annual bill of their energy provider. Sometimes that information is accompanied by numbers from the previous years. 'Oh, my usage is increasing with each year, while I installed energy-saving bulbs everywhere.' In order to find out where that increase is coming from, the consumer must hunt for high-consumption equipment. For a couple of tenners, you can buy a power meter and measure each device in the house separately. Nice for the technological enthusiasts among us, but most people will not like to do this. How can we make it more simple and 'smart'?
Article from Objective #25, May 2016
The smart electricity meter can be the answer to this problem. The upcoming years, all Dutch households will get a smart meter that provides the grid operator with data on a daily basis. However, these daily updates do not offer any insight on the usage of individual devices. That insight could be provided by the P1 port: an exit of the smart meter that shows the electricity and gas meter readings to each resident in the house every ten seconds. Market parties can then in their turn produce special equipment to tap into these readings in (almost) real-time. Smart software will translate the raw data of the readings into usable information for the consumers. They receive the information presented in an accessible and easily understandable manner through for example a thermostat, a smart thermostat or an app on a smartphone. The possibilities are endless, but each choice has its own technological hurdles and expenses. And what does it give in return?
Energy profiling provides insight
Of course it gives something in return. A real-time energy profile contains a huge amount of information. Smart algorithms for data analysis will recognize whether household appliances are on or off from the shape of their profiles. A refrigerator has different characteristics than a washing machine. The consumer gets more insight into their energy use thanks to data analysis. The results are shown on a clear and user-friendly website or via an app that accurately displays the usage of one entire day. For the fun and appealing aspect of presentation, some apps are designed like games. "I see that your energy use is slightly more than that of your neighbors. And I see that the refrigerator is the culprit. Maybe you should consider getting a new one. Then you will have the lowest usage in your street and that will give you something in return." The businesses can for instance offer a nice discount campaign on major appliances for users of the app. The hunt for high-consumption equipment and 'hidden' points of consumption is on!
Simplicity does not equal simple
Cloudia is a solution in order to release the data from the P1 port. Half of Cloudia is a small box that connects to P1 port. The box sends the current energy use every ten seconds to the other part of the Cloudia: a backoffice in the cloud. That is all the box has to do. The cloud has everything else that is required. Intelligence, processing power, storage and control, but also configuration, diagnostics and firmware updates - the cloud has it all. The possibilities are endless and the costs are lower. The box only functions as a channel for raw data. However, making a simple and budget-friendly box is not an easy task. Simplicity is created by removing anything redundant. The chosen communication channel is WiFi. Although WiFi has some objections (not a very low-energy technique and signal strength may vary around the house), it has one big advantage: it is readily available everywhere.
Genuine Technolution product
Simplicity includes that the box can be easily installed for the consumer. Once connected, it needs to work continuously and the data can temporarily be stored with high reliability and performance via a secured connection. At the same time everything is in a low-power electronic design for a lower price. This set of demands makes Cloudia a genuine Technolution product: broadly usable and designed for multiple disciplines. It starts with a complicated question for the hardware of the box. Not every meter cupboard has an available outlet, so we use the 500 mW power feed that is supplied by the P1 port. But to send the WiFi signal, we require 1000 mW. The box does not need to send data continuously. It stores energy in a capacitor and the WiFi chip will only switch on shortly for the actual transmission. The CPU and the memory chip in the box are not altogether that powerful so the options for embedded software are limited. That which did not fit into the box in processing power has been transferred to the cloud. This then in turn makes the cloud software even more complex. In order to make a clear presentation for the clients, we want to eliminate all complexity so we need a proper design when it comes to the interface. These boxes are expected to be produced and distributed in large numbers (tens of thousands), so the supply chain management has to be in order: from buying the components for production to the programming of the system software.
Management from the cloud
Reliability is one of the most important aspects of IoT applications. Those who want to make decision based on data also require reassurance that a correct signal will land on the right location. That reassurance is included in the cloud software of Cloudia. Starting with the configuration and authorization. We can only adjust data when the consumer has allowed us to do so (opt-in). This permission is recorded in the cloud software. The collection of data will stop when the consumer revokes this consent. In order to be able to ensure this, there is a process in the cloud that identifies and authorizes each device separately. In addition, the cloud software runs diagnosis so it can determine where in the process there is a malfunction when there is a malfunction. Each phone call with the helpdesk costs money and each problem will affect the client's satisfaction. Finally, the firmware updates are also provided by the cloud and sent to the devices.
Device and cloud are unextractable
The box and the cloud software are inextricably connected: one cannot function without the other. The edge of the cloud allows for some flexibility with open connections that other parties can connect to with services and devices. With this open character of Cloudia, we try not to disrupt future developments in business models and ecosystems. There is no vendor lock-in. Quite the opposite, Cloudia is an 'enabler' for very new ideas that parties can develop on the surface of the cloud.
Entry-level model Internet of Things
Cloudia is an entry-level model for the Internet of Things (IoT). With only one sensor that measures the electricty and gas use, a user can get a lot of information about individual appliances that are all hooked up to this one sensor. Cloudia can also be used for other IoT applications with minor adjustments, such as measuring the industrial, agricultural or horticultural aspects. With an adjusted connection, Cloudia can moniter the status and energy usage of the central heating system or water pump. With another addition to the sensor, Cloudia can also, for example, monitor whether people who live alone are active according to the energy use or the lack thereof.
Chicken or the egg: measuring or assuming?
Cloudia provides insight into the energy use in a budget-friendly and easy manner. Insight is the starting point for improvement processes. You only have a reason to isolate when you see how much money is lost in heating costs due to lack of isolation. However, to get that insight, you will first have to install some measuring equipment. Simply tap into a Cloudia and measure to check if any of the assumptions are right. This way, you can verify any business cases step-by-step. After any assumptions are confirmed, an incentive to improve the situation and invest in any additional steps will sprout quickly.
Insight as a tool for tying clients
Cloudia is a flexible construction block for IoT applications, from entry-level in order to gaining insight to the final solution that can grow with the circumstances. Energy suppliers can create a closer relationship with their consumers through Cloudia and provide them with a better insight of their energy use. Via open interfaces, they can develop and offer new services from the cloud.
When every second counts
In programming the system software, each box is fitted with a unique serial number. If you have to do that for 10,000 items, it is more relevant to look at the process that is required to perform such an action. Then every second can make a big difference. Because of that reason we are looking for the most efficient methods for quality checks and automatic tests. We use the existing interfaces in the hardware to test and at the same time program the serial number plus the URL the device uses in order to make contact with the right server in the cloud.
Complexity: what is an interface?
A funny example to illustrate complexity is the word 'interface' that can mean something different in each of the aforementioned disciplines. In electronics, it is a soldering point on a PWB. In embedded software, it is the term to refer to a chip. In cloud software interfaces, one will probably think about XML. A user interface is a display screen. For the supply chain management the interface is, for example, the contract with the production company. So a simple question like 'is the interface design finished’? can result in some serious confusion when it comes to such a multi-disciplinary project.