Home Automation - Can your meter surf?

Deregulation in the energy industries around the world has made many companies wonder how they can offer better service and find new revenue streams. Although regions in North America and Europe are at the forefront of developments, Shikoku Electric Power’s management has been positioning itself for this global change for some years. One of our strategies has been to diversify into different fields, such as cable service, mobile phone service, information technologies and as an Internet service provider.

In the early nineties, I began to think about how we could leverage the synergy between our group companies to offer our 2.7 million customers new services and products. Residential networks for services such as telephony, cable and energy used to be developed almost in isolation. Deregulation has changed the boundaries that separated these industries, but the question: “How do we integrate these networks to offer new services?” has remained. My research has led me towards finding the answer to this problem; along the way I hope to change the way Shikoku Electric Power will do business in the 21st century.

OPENPLANET – Open Platform for Networking

It all began when I developed a technology that could control and monitor electric devices connected to the power-line carrier (PLC.) At that time, the worldwide web was really taking off, so I added the ability to communicate over a wide-area network (WAN) such as the Internet. The bridge that connected these two networks was dubbed the OPUS (OpenPLANET Universal Standard) Server.

Working for an electric utility naturally made me think that the best location for the server would be inside a watt-hour meter. Embedding the server inside the meter has several advantages, including easy installation, communications flexibility and security. The concept of the ‘residential gateway’ or ‘home gateway’ is similar to the OPUS Server hardware.

Good hardware is nothing without good software. The OPUS Server uses an advanced language called JAVA, developed by Sun Microsystems. JAVA was a logical choice, because it allowed us to build a robust and flexible server for connecting to the Internet. Other benefits include object-oriented programming, advance security, compact size and platform independence. We also took advantage of a technology called ‘software agents’, which performs user-delegated tasks autonomously by interacting with or reacting to its environment.

We refined and improved Open-PLANET during a project at a greenhouse located in a remote village. It allowed the manager to control and monitor various sensors and systems inside the greenhouse from any location, using an Internet browser. OpenPLANET also enabled the manager to conduct load-profiling analyses, perform interactive energy management and maintain accurate records of data automatically. Data could be logged at controlled intervals or in real-time.

The project’s success convinced me that OpenPLANET could be applied to other systems inside Shikoku Electric Power. For the past two years Shikoku Electric Power has been promoting OpenPLANET as the home networking solution of the future, both inside and outside Japan. Our goal is to establish an open specification defining a standard set of services and APIs for home networking.

The PLC Network

In the average home there are 35 to 50 electric devices that contain microprocessors. For years vendors have thought about how to tie them together into a control network. In America, the X10 architecture, targeted at home automation, has had some limited success because of its low cost. However, X10 has some drawbacks in providing a flexible platform for advance control and Internet connectivity. Although the use of control networks in industrial and commercial facilities is much greater than in the residential market, proprietary protocols have made system integration a difficult task. The OpenPLANET system provides seamless interconnections between inside and outside networks, as well as flexible control and easy configuration.

OpenPLANET is also media independent. This means that different media types within a single location, available today or in the future, can be used – for example PLC, twisted pair, RF, Infrared, Bluetooth. We presently use LonWorks, Echelon Corp’s PLC technology. LonWorks is recognised internationally as a standard for interoperable control networks. (The protocol underlying LonWorks was recently approved as an open industry standard by ANSI as ANSI/EIA 709.1-1999.)

While we ensure that we remain compatible with Echelon’s technology, we have been testing the ECHONET Consortium’s PLC technology. ECHONET was founded by leading Japanese home appliance manufacturers to standardise PLC control for home appliances. There are other PLC technologies being developed around the world, but our engineers feel that ECHONET’s technology is superior, thanks to price, performance and industry backing.

I will now describe the basic architecture of OpenPLANET when applied to a residential house. In this house, the electric appliances and devices are connected to the PLC network, which has four main advantages over other methods:

  1. No costly rewiring
  2. A ‘connection port’ in almost every room
  3. Plug & Play design
  4. Energy management capability

ECHONET’s PLC technology addresses some of the problems that have plagued previous PLC technologies – data speed, line noise and high cost. The fact that OpenPLANET is media independent is important, because there are some situations where infrared, twisted pair or RF makes more sense for connecting devices. There are also some interesting new connectivity technologies (Bluetooth, Havi) on the horizon upon which we are keeping a close eye.

In Diagram 1, the homeowner has several electric devices connected to the PLC. In order for each device to communicate to the outside world, it must contain an embedded microchip. During OpenPLANET’s R&D and field-testing we used Echelon’s Neuron chip.

Now that most Japanese manufacturers support ECHONET, however, the price-per-chip should be lower. Sun is also working on a JAVA-chip, and OpenPLANET will be capable of communicating to JAVA-chip based devices in the future.

Diagram 1

We are often asked: “Will consumers be required to purchase new products?” Industry experts point out that most products developed in the next ten years will automatically include these chips. However, for current appliances or ‘simple’ devices (eg lamps, lights) we have developed a Power Control Adapter (PCA.) The PCA plugs in between the device and the outlet and contains an embedded chip. It allows almost any appliance or device to take advantage of OpenPLANET.

Configuration and installation is simple. Diagram 2 is a flowchart of the steps that occur when a device is plugged in. In step one, the user plugs the product into a standard wall outlet, or into a PCA (one PCA per device). That’s it, installation finished! In the second step, the embedded microchip in the device will send its ID number – necessary for product type identification – to the OPUS Server. In step three, the server has received the number and has created a Virtual Machine (VM) for the device. A VM is a software avatar of the device, and always shares the current status and capabilities of the device. OpenPLANET technology derives much of its power and flexibility from the VM concept.

The OPUS Server

The OPUS Server sits between the home network and the outside world. As the OpenPLANET ‘gateway’, it is reliable, secure and flexible. Two Japanese manufacturers have already developed OPUS Servers, which can be installed into standard meters. This approach makes the most sense for residential use, because the costs are lower (a dedicated PC is eliminated) and the reliable no-fault server is available 24 hours a day (no accidental unplugging!)

The feature set and specifications of the meter-installed OPUS Server are perfect for most residential applications. However, we recommend the use of a workstation in commercial or industrial applications. (We support Microsoft Windows NT, and Sun’s Solaris.) Running the server software on a workstation provides much higher processing capabilities and data storage for demanding applications such as building automation and facilities management.

To perform as the bridge between the home and the outside world, the OPUS Server contains several elements. In addition to connecting to the in-home network, it contains three types of software servers, communications hardware, a RISC CPU, memory, and battery backup. The software servers handle the VMs, agents, and provide connectivity to the WAN.

The communication hardware is dependent on the locality of the OPUS Server. The Japanese market uses the PHS mobile phone system, and FM broadcast. The PHS system is unique to Japan, so we are currently exploring other technologies for overseas (for example fibre-optics, satellite, DSL, cable). The RISC CPU provides superior processing power, good power management, and is priced very competitively. At present our specifications for the OPUS Server suggest a minimum of 16MB DRAM, 8MB Flash, and 1MB of static-backup memory. These are very generous amounts because of the small size of the server software, VMs and agents.

Through a standard web browser, users can view the status of their network, monitor and program devices remotely, and gather valuable data on the use of these devices. As long as Internet service is available, the client device that holds the browser can be located almost anywhere in the world. The most popular devices are PCs, but any device that is Java capable can act as a client. I foresee a future where miniature clients like wristwatches, PDAs or mobile phones will allow for unprecedented real-time control of networked devices.

Client devices are capable of complete control and monitoring by downloading a clone of the VM from the OPUS Server. By interacting with the clone VM, the electric appliance can be used from the home, office or while on the road. Limited only by available memory, the client device can handle VMs for any device on the network.

OpenPLANET’s VM concept has two other powerful and distinct features.

  1. A single client device can hold VMs from different locations (networks). This allows a single user to access all of his/her facility’s machinery from one client.
  2. Two or more VMs can co-exist concurrently for the same electric appliance. This allows managers located at different locations to have access to the same equipment.

Service Supervisor

The service supervisor acts as the central manager and operator of the OpenPLANET system. In the Shikoku Island market we plan to create a joint venture company to act as the service supervisor, performing these functions:

  • Sales promotion and consumer education about OpenPLANET
  • Installation, maintenance and management of the OPUS Server and related hardware
  • Distribute agents and services to the OPUS Server
  • Secure communications between the OPUS Server and outside world (similar to a ‘firewall’)
  • Register and provide technical support for service providers.

Diagram 2

We believe that the role of the service supervisor is an exciting opportunity for public utilities. With OpenPLANET, utilities can create new revenue streams and enhance their position in a deregulated market.

Service Providers

Just as consumers today subscribe to services such as cable and telephone, OpenPLANET’s service providers will be able to package various services offering convenience, simplicity, and lower cost. Examples include:

  • Customer service (usage patterns, consumption forecasting, complaint & bill processing)
  • Energy management (DSM, load management, load profiling, flexible tariffication)
  • Advanced metering (AMR, auto connect/disconnect, prepayment systems, real-time pricing).

The home of the future will be loaded with appliances that talk to the Internet – and to each other. Because OpenPLANET provides a standard interconnection for network interfacing and device interface, manufacturers can benefit by enhancing their products with improved customer service support and new multimedia services. For example, your PDA’s scheduler can tell the coffee machine to start perking in the morning, or the refrigerator could note the expiry date on the milk carton and have more delivered while you’re at work. Imagine your microwave performing a self-diagnosis, and having a service technician come to your home. Of course, appliances will not only provide data in the event of failure – they will also be capable of automatic maintenance to catch problems before they occur!

Our engineers have been co-developing applications in various industries across Japan since 1996. Initial services that will be offered include:

  • Appliance diagnosis and customer support
  • Home automation 
  • Security 
  • Distance learning 
  • Facilities management
  • Home health care 
  • Energy Services
  • Commercial advertising

AMR Agents

Unlike other control systems which have fixed architectures, the OpenPLANET system can be expanded, controlled and updated autonomously through the use of software agents. Software agents incorporate important attributes that make them highly effective in control systems – task delegation, communication skills, autonomy, monitoring, actuation, security, mobility and intelligence. In principle, software agents allow for intelligent indirect management of system resources. During our alpha testing, we concentrated on three types of agent-based solutions – energy management, security, and home health care.

Most utilities around the world send people out to do traditional meter reads each month in order to create a bill, and we are no exception. Benefits include the low cost per read, and the fact that meter-reading personnel can check for tampering and other possible problems with the meter. However, there are strong arguments to be made for AMR; these are some of OpenPLANET’s AMR benefits:

  • Presents real-time and additional data for decision making
  • Provides better levels of service and improves efficiency
  • Performs tariff-rate optimisations 
  • Allows alarm management and meter diagnostics
  • Allows itemised billing and submetering
  • Remote connect/disconnect

The process of reading the meters begins with the service supervisor transmitting an agent to the target location, under the utility’s direction. The service supervisor will broadcast this ‘AMR Agent’ to an OPUS Server using the PHS mobile phone service. When the agent arrives in the first OPUS Server, it performs several functions. First, it reads the energy consumption and provides that ‘read’ to the consumer. This data can be displayed and analysed on the television screen, or printed out using a PLC printer.

In the next stage, the agent will be transmitted to the neighbour’s OPUS Server. This signal uses the PHS’s ‘transceiver’ mode – unique to the PHS system and one of the reasons we use it. Transceiver mode works much like your cordless phone and its base unit (no transmission cost.) With a range of at least 100 meters, it’s perfect for dense residential zoning.

Now, inside the second meter, the agent will perform the same routine and jump to the next home. We embedded intelligence into the agent so that it can ‘jump’ over certain homes, report outages and perform diagnostics. The agent can also check for tampering. In addition, agents can clone themselves. The clones can be used to cover a greater area in a shorter amount of time – one agent can record the data from 1000 meters. When the agent has completed the reading of the targeted area, it will return to the service supervisor. The cost for reading meters using our agent system is extremely low, and the system can be used for gas and water AMR as well.

Smart Metering and Beyond

OpenPLANET provides a robust platform for a new information-infrastructure that will benefit many utilities. Following the cellular phone business model of offering hardware at reduced costs through services revenue, value-added services can finally be provided around the globe.

Shikoku Electric Power has been pushing ahead with OpenPLANET since last year; we have already completed alpha testing and we plan to begin field testing in the second half of 2000 in Japan. White papers and API documentation will be released in 2001 so that we can build a strong OpenPLANET trade association in and outside of Japan. You can follow our progress at http://www.openplanet.co.jp.