Making SMART Homes Smarter

A University of Ulster researcher is at the cutting edge of innovative technology designed to make homes smarter. Dr Juan Carlos Augusto, a lecturer in the School of Computing and Mathematics says the research area could have major implications, particularly for elderly or vulnerable people living alone.

Based at the University’s Jordanstown campus, Dr Augusto specialises in the area of Artificial Intelligence and recently his research has focused on ‘Ambient Intelligence’ - which uses technology to increase the range of services that buildings can provide for their occupants.

“Turning lights or heaters on or off without human assistance was one of the earlier applications of this kind of technology, but current techniques of Artificial Intelligence can track the time and hence also the frequency of a variety of activities. For example, how often a person is waking up and walking out of the bedroom during night; or even things like how often they leave a tap running or leave the cooker unattended.

“The architecture of a house can be enriched with different sensors to detect movement and identify the cause of the movement. The technology can also be used to gather medical information which could be vital for people who live alone,” says Dr Augusto. “One example would be to help older people by spotting when they get into difficulties. It could also improve security around buildings detecting unexplained movements or to help diagnose health problems before they become serious.”

Dr Augusto is developing software which will be able to analyse the various activities detected by the sensors at a remote location. This information can then be used to assist either the inhabitants of the house directly or passed on to others, for example relatives, medical and caring personnel or security staff. One attractive feature of this software is that it will provide a flexible language to define a variety of interesting scenarios which can then be monitored.

“Technology already exists to detect what objects are being used in the home. This allows us to take ‘behavioural snapshots’ of the activities, or the lack of them, inside the house,” continues Dr Augusto. “However while our senses give us information about the environment, it is our intelligence that puts all these information together to understand a context and take decisions. Similarly, individual sensors need to be complemented with software that can have a more holistic view of a given environment at any time as to anticipate potential risks or needs and act accordingly.”

According to Dr Augusto, while there are many houses advertised as ‘Smart Homes’, it would be hard to say how many actually deserve the label - as this depends on where the line is drawn between something behaving intelligently or not. The market for Smart Homes technology is growing, particularly in Northern Europe, the USA and Japan. Some charitable trusts in the UK like the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust have basic Smart Homes functioning to provide independent living to elderly people.

“Smart Houses are technologically and commercially viable and the more resources available the better. As time progresses, new sensors will become available and more complex designs will be considered,” he adds. “We are currently looking for funding or other sources of collaboration and interaction to help bring this important area of research to fruition. Although still in its embryonic stages, there will be many applications of this technology which is both technologically and commercially viable.”

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