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This podcast comes from TED 2009, where electronics inventor John La Grou shows off the capabilities of a sensor web of smart power outlets in every home, where the outlet knows what is plugged into it, and how much power the device is consuming, and when it consumes it.
John La Grou is a patent holder and research engineer on Safeplug, a new brand of electrical fault circuit interrupters. The Safeplug technology, which combines microprocessors in power outlets and RFID tags in electrical plugs, might just represent the next generation in residential and commercial electrical delivery.
The talk starts by looking at the humble smoke alarm as an example of a simple technology which changed the world. They let you know of a fire in progress, but what they cannot do is prevent fires. The talk gives some statistics for how many die or are injured in the US, from electrical fires each year. He argues how nice it would be if we could prevent electrical fires before they happened.
To do this, electrical devices - all of them - must be able to communicate directly with the power outlet they are plugged into, and the power outlet must have a degree of intelligence. Never mind the main circuit board, the outlets individually serve as fuse boxes for the appliances plugged into them.
If the outlet finds too much power is being drawn to be safe, then it regulates or disables the power flow. Regulates it down to safe limits, or turns it off entirely. It has to be smart enough to know when to do this.
To create the link, a wireless data tag transponder was placed in each appliance plug, with specs for what the appliance should be drawing. A data reader placed in the socket reads that tag, whilst the device is plugged in, and knows how much power that unit expects to draw. If an extention cord is plugged in, or a four-way, then that device has its own reader, and data transponder. The reader takes the specs of all connected devices, and if its safe to run all those devices, it tells its own tag the combined power requirements, its tag then tells the sockets.
As an added safety feature, and to prevent older devices orr children from being plugged in, the power in one of these sockets would be always off, until a transponder was plugged in.
This technology was termed the Electrical Fault Circuit Interrupter (EFCI).
As the final part of the system, all sockets are wired in, via the electrical system itself, to a control system at a central location. There power allowances for each socket can be set. Heavy loads such as tumble dryers can be commanded to only receive power when it is cheapest for example, or a hotel can block power entirely from unused rooms.
It is even possible this way, to stop specific tags working in a building. For example, anything that resembles the tag for a music player, in an office complex. Remember, no tag, no current.