Homes that think for themselves

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Imagine waking up in the morning but then being able to stay in bed a little longer while your smart home takes care of all the preparations for the day ahead: sensors in the lighting system register when the occupants of the house wake up and send a signal to the blinds, which open up to let in the sun. Meanwhile, the underfloor heating warms up the bathroom and the coffee maker prepares your first cup of coffee. Sound tempting? In reality, however, smart homes are still a way off. Although lights, heating and electrical appliances can be controlled and programmed using a smartphone, each device still requires its own app.

The coffee maker cannot communicate with the kettle

Most components of a smart home can be controlled externally.

Although electrical household appliances cannot yet communicate with one another, they are to be taught how in the West German city of Duisburg, where several of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft’s research institutes run application laboratories for residential and utility buildings. “Together with our partners in industry, we have been developing and trialling smart home technologies for the past 15 years”, says Nina Kloster, who heads the Fraunhofer inHaus-Center.

How should appliances best communicate with one another?

“Our next step is to develop a software platform which uses algorithms to process data from different appliances.” The idea is that the platform will make one of the trial houses truly “smart”. It will act as an intelligent translator capable of mediating between the appliances of different manufacturers, as each brand speaks its own language. The goal is to design a self-learning system able not only to interlink devices to create an “Internet of things” but also to ensure that they adapt to the needs of the smart home’s occupants.

More than just comfort

Scientists are not focusing solely on comfort, however. “Originally, smart home products were intended first and foremost to make our lives more comfortable”, recalls Kloster. “Nowadays it is about safety and energy efficiency and about enabling the elderly to spend longer living independently at home.” Scientists at universities and research institutes all over Germany are pursuing research into such applications. The Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT near Bonn for example is developing software designed to better control energy consumption in buildings . Known as smart meters, digital electricity meters gather data about the use and consumption of appliances and systems and use this information to identify potential savings. If radiators or light switches can be controlled centrally, energy can be saved.

Another example comes courtesy of the FZI Research Center for Information Technology in Karlsruhe. In a test apartment, IT experts are conducting a trial in which a mobile phone is used in conjunction with a network of motion sensors in the floor. If the system detects an emergency on the basis of the motion profiles, for example because an elderly person has not used the toilet for a very long time, the mobile phone calls automatically for help.