Get Smart Enough: Homes, offices, manufacturing, cities and more

Diagram of a smartphone connected to various components of a smart home system, against a blue background

Futuristic smart cities have been envisioned for years. TV shows from the last century predicted amazing technological leaps. “Lost in Space,” an early 1960s sci-fi show, forecast interplanetary travel in 1997. It also predicted highly useful robots that could perform some advanced functions, including decision-making. Robots were in widespread use by 1997; however, they were mostly limited to assembly line production activities, such as circuit board stuffing, paint spraying and welding. A robot that could move on its own and make decisions and implement them was still far off. In more recent years, robots have been used in hospitals to dispense medication, and some provide roving customer service in grocery stores.

The first “Star Trek” series was set in the mid-22nd century. It featured technology such as communicators, tricorders, transporters and a talking computer. We have already far exceeded the function of the communicator with today’s smartphones. Wearable devices provide health data, which can be transmitted to our doctors. Sensors monitor weather conditions. Alexa and Siri are both faster than the talking computer on the Starship Enterprise. And while sending lifeforms by the transporter still seems very unlikely to become a reality, with 3D printers, we can send detailed information to a device that will print a copy anywhere. The original and the copy can continue to exist.

“The Jetsons,” a sci-fi cartoon from the same era, was set in 2062. Like the “Star Trek” franchise, it forecast robots and doors that opened when you approached them. It also predicted flying cars, which have actually been built. However, they haven’t been successful, because they are essentially airplanes. Today, work is underway to develop electric airplanes. The National Electrical Code has recognized wireless power transfer for electric vehicles (cars). It can be in the floors of garages and it could be embedded into roadways. It is difficult to conceive of an equivalent technology for electric airplanes, so charging is likely to be done on the ground and supplemented with solar panels on the aircraft.

Smart homes

The first attempt to create requirements for “smart technology” in the home was Article 780, “Closed-Loop and Programmed Power Distribution,” which first appeared in the 1987 Code. Don’t look for it now, though, because it is no longer there. Very few smart houses using this technology were ever built. Why? Because all appliances, electronic devices and fixtures had to have the proprietary technology built into them to be used in the home. This technology was restricted; only two manufacturers would be licensed for any type of equipment. Limited licensing meant that an owner might be unable to buy an appliance because no maker was licensed for that particular item or might not have built it because of the limited market.

Fortunately, today, proprietary technology must either be either freely available or licensed on a nondiscriminatory basis. When moving into a new home, we bring all of our stuff from the previous place. Few people have the luxury of replacing every piece of electrical and electronic equipment on top of buying a home, which is almost always the biggest purchase of their lifetime.

Smart Wi-Fi switches make it possible to control devices that only require toggling on and off, such as lighting. They are a great solution for existing equipment that does not have Wi-Fi capability. Much of today’s electronic equipment can be web-connected. Looking at my router, I find that I have 22 web-connected devices.

Smart offices and manufacturing

The NEC has covered control and monitoring systems for years. Fire (Article 760) and security systems (Article 725) are among them. Chapter 8 contains requirements from plain old telephone service systems to cable television to network-powered and locally powered broadband. Article 725 provides the requirements that can be used for power supplies and the wiring of data networks.

Many office buildings use occupancy sensors to control lighting, reducing energy consumption. Some networks track smartphones to know who is in the area and how to respond. Smart identification badges are also in use—after identification, the system can provide access and lighting. It can also provide usage data that would help management to better understand how the facilities are being used. The data may indicate that more or less space is needed. It may indicate that conference rooms are in the wrong part of the building and that relocation would improve efficiency. Some devices may rely on power over ethernet. This technology, recognized in the 2017 NEC , uses data cables for power and data for some low-energy devices. The early applications of this were telephones and security cameras. Now it is also being used for lighting and router power supplies

For many years, just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing has been an essential part of the industrial world. In JIT manufacturing, there is little or no inventory. Supplies arrive just when they are needed to be integrated into an assembly. With artificial intelligence, the machinery can be set up to order parts when needed. It can also order machine maintenance, when needed.

Smart cities

How does smart technology scale up to cover entire cities? Cities are not monolithic. They evolve over time. Some have characterized city development as “haphazard,” and this is especially true of many older, large cities, which were founded when their states were colonies. Although the original layouts of these cities were sometimes painstakingly planned out, expansion over the years occurred with far less consideration. Yet, there are some smart technologies that can be integrated into those areas that will not detract from their history.

“Data is the new oil” is the theme of today. Information is valuable because of all the ways in which it can be used. Some data collection is not readily apparent. For example, some phone GPS apps capture information on frequent traffic congestion, and this information has been sold to government agencies involved in infrastructure development and improvement. Smart technology can be used to reroute traffic during congestion. Smart roadways can also be used to charge electric vehicles, while maintaining control of traffic.

Some government services can be monitored. Intelligent networks have been used to monitor the location of police, fire and emergency medical service assets. A system that provides the location of the nearest available assets can improve response times. The ability to monitor the location of assets can also minimize collisions between vehicles that may be responding to the same or different calls.

Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., has been used to monitor public sanitary sewer systems, tracking illegal dumping of hazardous materials back to its source. Biological monitoring has also be used to track the spread of epidemics through a community.

Since systems will evolve over time, interoperability is an ongoing consideration. Parts of the system may need to be upgraded because the continued use of some equipment might inhibit the operation of the network.

Artificial intelligence will be a major function as smart networks are developed. Machine learning will be necessary to process the vast amounts of data from around the city. Of course, frequent monitoring would be necessary to ensure that the machine learning is making the right decisions. The increase in the number of connected devices is going to need faster networks that can handle the avalanche of data. Many wireless providers are rolling out 5G technology to handle all of this data, which will require a significant hardwired infrastructure to support it.

Security is the chief concern of the information age. We frequently hear about hacking. Most of the hacking involves the theft of personal information, while some involves ransomware attacks in which computer systems are disabled and data files are held for ransom. A major fear is that systems that control vital functions may be taken over and disabled or used for a nefarious purpose. In fact, on March 5, 2019, there was a denial of service attack on an electrical utility in the western United States.

Some networks will rely on phone tracking. My home security system has a feature that will disable the system when it detects the right smartphones in close proximity. This can be useful, but it can lead to an unintentional disabling of the system. Smart tracking can be used to provide emergency evacuation services for people with disabilities. Phone tracking has also been used to track shoppers in stores and to send text message ads to their phones.

A strategic plan for implementing smart technology must allow for future expansion and needed upgrades. Security must be a key feature to prevent unauthorized access and to prevent identity and data theft. A network that isn’t secure is unlikely to be supported by the public.

The predictions of those 1960s science fiction shows may have had an influence in where we are today, but it appears that the future may be even more advanced than predicted. I expect to see some exciting changes for the 2023 NEC to provide the needed infrastructure for the future.

About the Author

Mark Earley

Mark Earley, P.E., is the chief electrical engineer. Retired from the National Fire Protection Association, he was secretary of the National Electrical Code Committee for 30 years.

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