A smarter home is a safer home, says Martin Vesper, CEO of DigitalSTROM, a manufacturer and supplier of smart home technology. Embedding intelligence into household devices means that they are able to alert the occupants and the authorities in the event of an emergency. There are also obvious pluses for elderly or disabled residents when it comes to automating manual tasks.
“A smart home is much more secure than a non-smart home,” he said, giving an example of how connected devices can be used to lower the risk of fatality in the event of a fire.
“Eight-hundred people die in Germany alone because of smoke inhalation … If we have a smoke detector and it says ‘fire’, automatically all the lights go on to light escape routes, all the doors will be unlocked, and an alarm can be sent to the emergency services. Oh, and by the way, the connected fridge that automatically orders milk when it runs out? That will be automatically turned off because often the fridge is the cause of the fire.”
The smart home can also be more easily secured against intruders, he went on.
“If your locking system is done in a smart way you can give temporary rights to a customer or a guest based on their smartphone. If they lose their smartphone you will know immediately and you can deny them rights to enter.”
DigitalSTROM’s technology consists of small intelligent switches that look a little like Lego bricks. The switches have 26KB of memory on board plus two microprocessors and are capable of 60 different functions. They plug into the electrical circuit replacing existing switches and allow all devices on the electrical ciruit to talk to each other. Other devices based on IP or wireless can be networked too, provided they have an open API that allows for interconnection. The network of connected devices is orchestrated by a control panel that is installed next to the domestic fusebox and which converts electrical signals to IP.
The hardware is relatively simple because all the complex work of controlling the interactions between the devices, setting preferences and adjusting parameters is done by software algorithms. Being software based allows the system to be both backward- and forward-compatible. So, a heating system that’s 15 years old can still be brought on board simply by installing smart switches, and new services can be integrated without having to install any new equipment.
“Everything you do is based on software so you don’t have to get an electrician in,” Vesper said.
Using analytics, a smart house is also able to learn users’ preferences and adjust parameters accordingly, perhaps dimming a light by 70 percent 10 seconds after someone leaves the room to save energy.
Connectivity to the wider internet is looked after by a server, also typically installed by the fusebox, which allows the smart home to utilise a range of external services via a cloud-based Tibco enterprise platform.
“There are some things that you cannot do locally such as predict the weather. You need a supercomputer for that,” Vesper explained.
“Perhaps hail is forecast for certain area. The weather forecasting service is connected to all the smart homes in that area and the awnings in those homes will be automatically retracted. Alternatively a message can be pushed to the users’ smartphone advising them do that themselves.”
The flipside of increased security and convenience in the world of technology is frequently decreased privacy. While DigitalSTROM’s technology allows for encryption within the home (as in password protection to guard against unauthorised access), and takes measures to ensure the house’s occupants cannot log what the others are doing, nevertheless where cloud-based services are integrated encryption cannot be applied.
Vesper does not believe this is much of an issue, saying that burglars have far simpler ways to find out if a home is empty than hacking the system, and that there is little of interest to be gained from accessing the traffic between domestic devices, and that other issues are covered by data protection legislation. However he does concede that the legal issues around cloud access potentially present a problem, particularly in China, which is one market that the firm is looking at. In Europe, the Tibco platform is hosted in Microsoft Azure, but this is not possible in China.
“We use the Azure environment for two reasons. One is legal – in Europe it’s the only one that fulfils all our requirements regarding data protection. The second is it’s a very reliable, high-performance scalable infrastructure. Latency is very important for us and it’s worked out so far. But you can’t run that environment in China, you have to do it through a local provider and you have to look at it regarding those privacy issues.”
So China presents certain problems with the ability and propensity for the authorities there to monitor the systems – and to make certain demands of suppliers that they might find uncomfortable. But what about Europe? Has Vesper ever been asked to hand over data from its cloud to the authorities in its home territories of Germany or Switzerland?
“No. And I worked for a provider of smart meter information before, and I was never asked there either. I assume they have other means of doing it. Personal devices are much more interesting than the house in certain areas because a house is non-personal whereas smartphone is personal,” he said.
At present, with Internet of Things applications like smart homes still in their infancy, concern about privacy and data protection is at the same sort of level as it is around social media and smartphones. That is to say, people are aware of the issues, but in the main they are willing to provide data in return for services.
“What is the benefit if I give this data? If it’s getting more comfortable for customers and easier to do, customers do it,” Vesper said.
However, as more and more devices start to connect to ubiquitous cloud services that balance of customer opinion may change, and suppliers such as DigitalSTROM might need to find a way of providing comfort, convenience and privacy, too.