By Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio, EETimes 05.05.2020
Both residential and commercial properties are ripe markets for intelligent systems, smart security systems, and other automation solutions, but old electrical infrastructure is pervasive and can sometimes stand in the way.
Taking this into account, startup Amber Solutions has created a series of solid-state electrical solutions for smart outlets, circuit breakers, and more. Built-in software management provides an intelligent control base within the electrical wiring endpoints of buildings for use by third-party security and automation providers.
Electricity distribution began at the end of the 19th century, and it quickly became clear that electrical systems needed to incorporate technological safety measures. Thomas Edison introduced the first fuse to help protect loads from over-current conditions. Fuses continue to protect structures today. Edison also developed the concept of the first circuit breaker, used to protect loads and wiring from overheating, thereby reducing the risk of fire to structures and the loss of life.
Electrical infrastructure hasn’t evolved anywhere near the pace of, for example, Moore’s Law — not that electrical infrastructure needed that much evolution, but still. If we could bring Thomas Edison back to the present day, he would notice the changes in electrical infrastructure from his time, but he’d find much of what he saw familiar.
Government safety regulations have helped motivate circuit breaker suppliers to include new protection functions. Wall receptacles and switches have taken a similar technological path. The vast majority of receptacles are simple mechanical structures without electronics or advanced capabilities. Nowadays, more advanced receptacles include ground-fault detecting circuit interrupter (GFCI) to prevent electric shock, particularly in wet areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, and garages. Similar to ground fault detection switches, these GFCI outlets include sensitive electronics to detect a fault condition, but continue to rely on the electromechanical architecture of the 1950s to open and close circuits.
The most advanced wall switches on the market today include capacitive touch displays and wireless controls for more convenience. However, the vast majority of these designs still implement electromechanical relays for load current control today.
With the acceleration in technical innovations, the electrical infrastructure is being left further and further behind the innovation curve, but the adoption of innovation in electricity management is evolving at a significantly slower pace.
With the explosion of electronic devices in all homes and buildings, problems within electrical infrastructure are accumulating. Several large companies are working to offer an innovative vision of electrical innovation based on the concept of a solid-state switch with integrated software, largely intended for commercial and industrial applications.
Solid-state digital control
The breakthrough of digital control of electricity allows for upgradeable firmware, and machine learning embedded algorithms in buildings. The solid-state architecture — electronic components and silicon chips — allows this breakthrough to be fully realized, making it possible for software intelligence to be incorporated directly into electrical products, electrical infrastructure, and thus into the structure of the building.
The digital nature of solid-state architecture innovations creates the possibility to expand functionality, increase value and integrate and extend existing intelligent building systems, such as residential and commercial security, commercial fire control, access control, and building automation.
The overall benefits of solid-state electrical architecture include:
Increased reliability: Moving parts are minimal or zero and guarantee much higher reliability.
Faster and safer actions: Solid-state architecture enables substantially faster actions, such as circuit breaker intervention.
Reduced size: The ability to reduce the size of power management technologies through solid-state architecture opens up a number of additional features.
Smarter operation: The solid-state architecture is ideal for housing algorithms and firmware, so machine-to-machine control (M2M) and machine learning intelligence (ML) can be integrated into the infrastructure.
Amber offers a solid-state digital control of electricity with its patented Amber AC/DC Enabler and Amber AC Switch. According to the company, its new products facilitate the solid-state, digital control of the electricity powering any electrical device in a building or residence. AC/DC Enabler is a UL-certified solid-state digital power management switch, arc-free switching, eliminating the bulky relays and Triac dimmers. Amber AC switch, instead, is a dual-throw solid-state line disturbance circuit interrupter for GFCIs and AFCIs. It offers high-speed, programmable over current protection. Both devices support the monitoring of intelligent products
“The utility grid is the key resource for Amber to operate,” said Thar Casey, founder, president, and CEO of Amber Solutions. He continued “Amber has created a unique AC-DC enabler, the pseudo switch converter that uniquely transforms a fraction of AC mains or grid power into a regulated DC source. Amber defines the use of the AC Mains and has developed another unique method of power control, this time it is the control of AC power into the AC load. Through our Digital Power Management and Control System (DPMC), which is a small solid-state device, the system with its micro-controllers, processors, and RF devices connects directly to the AC main.”
The state-solid approach can simplify installation, reduce overall costs, increase functionality, and provide greater installation effectiveness. Pre-installing such feature-rich devices provide a ready-to-use platform for a variety of features. Amber’s technology is a Digital Power Management System, a small solid-state device that efficiently manages the power supply of highly sophisticated microcontrollers, processors, and RF devices directly from the AC mains. It eliminates the need for bulky electromechanical components such as capacitors and magnets that limit the reliability and functionality of today’s devices, effectively reducing the number of components.
“Big technological breakthroughs are going to be included in one single solution. We found a way to eliminate the electromechanical power converter that converts AC to DC. That power converter has an electrolytic magnetics transformer, it’s electromechanical. We found a way to eliminate it and we turned it to a completely solid-state solution. So, because of that, then we will be able to solve the state, we will be able to turn this completely into a chip, and it will be a fraction of the size eventually,” said Casey.
A solid-state modernization of traditional electric infrastructure could offer an upgrade in terms of quality, reliability, and security, but also the opportunity to incorporate intelligence as a basis for IoT.
The promise of such built-in intelligence in buildings can offer a range of benefits, from increased security to energy savings, from advanced automation with built-in machine learning intelligence to continuous awareness of environmental conditions both in the rooms of buildings for human health, but also within the very walls of facilities that monitor the variability of the conditions of a building.
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Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio
Maurizio holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a telecommunication engineer and journalist. He has worked on various international projects in the field of gravitational wave research. He collaborates with research institutions to design data acquisition and control systems for space applications. He is the author of several books published by Springer, as well as numerous scientific and technical publications on electronics design.