Smart Home Assisted Living & Telecare

The idea of an assisted living and telecare service based around our smart home software came to me when I realised that you basically get a lot of it for free with a truly smart home. The seeds were first sown when I arrived home one day in 2014, to find my wife had left her hair straighteners on, with a makeup bag sitting on top of them. As I entered the bedroom I noticed the burning smell and spotted wisps of smoke slowly rising from the makeup bag. I realised that I needed to prevent this happening again and could do so using the existing functionality of our smart home to address this problem.

I simply fitted a Z-Wave appliance module between the mains plug and mains socket and added her 'Hair Straighteners' to a configuration file. Job done! Not only does my wife have an easier way (a large push toggle switch) to turn them on, they now also have a nice clear indicator lamp on the appliance module to show when they are on or off. Our smart home 'sees' when they are switched on or off and thus knows how long they have been on for. If they are on for more than 7 minutes (a time period chosen by checking typical usage over a few months) our smart home sends a text message and switches them off automatically.

My wife is more than happy to accept this solution and it is a subconcious reminder of what might have been. Since taking these steps she has not left them on again. Her life has been made easier and safer via this simple application of technology. We both have greater peace of mind. My wife is neither elderly or vulnerable, this is the kind of technology that could benefit any person or child.

There are many other similar examples where simple, low-cost technology can improve peoples lives and also improve their safety. The trick is in applying the right technology to each given situation, something I have much experience of after more than ten years of doing home automation. In my day job as an innovation consultant I have also run several technology trials with the elderly and vulnerable. These have also inspired me to look more at how our the smart home could be used to address the specific challenges of assisted living and telecare.

When viewed from a telecare perspective our smart home provides:

  • A solution that is flexible, extensible and easily configurable to any home.
  • A reliable and resilient service that sits in the cared for persons home.
  • A service that works with any broadband service (>½Mbps).
  • An option for 3G/4G fall-back network.
  • Intelligent monitoring, analysis, alerting & reporting.
  • A simple user experience requiring no learning or training.
  • Secure remote access and queries by trusted carers.
  • A growing set of sensors and devices to extend its capabilities.
  • A growing set of network services to extend its capabilities.
  • A growing set of support services to extend its capabilities.

Motivation

These are the reasons we think that a smart home assisted living solution is valuable to both carers and the elderly and vulnerable and these factors have driven our thinking and development. These are closely aligned to our dozen good reasons why you need a smart home:

As a concerned relative or carer I want ...

  • High confidence that the person being cared for is safe and well.
  • Pre-emptive warnings and timely notifications of potential problems.
  • Be confident that ALL major issues will be identified.
  • A cost-effective solution to support me and others as carers.
  • The ability to simply check on their well being.
  • A service that is tailored to my their home.
  • Simple and intuitive service that is easy to use and access.
  • Minimal learning required and no new Smartphone apps.
  • Securely service that supports multiple (trusted) carers.
  • Relevant insight into their daily life and activity.
  • A service that evolves as their capabilities and needs change.

As the cared for elderly or vulnerable person I want ...

  • To be empowered to live in my own home with dignity.
  • To feel safer with improved security & safety devices.
  • Peace of mind and to be sure my carers will know if I need assistance.
  • To save money through improved efficiency and thus lower bills.
  • To make my life simpler and more convenient.
  • My home to require less effort and to be less tiring.
  • My home to be more comfortable to live in.
  • A service that is not intrusive and respects my privacy.
  • Improves accessibility and places no additional burdens on me.
  • No unsightly 'medical' devices to imply that I am frail or ill.
  • My health and well-being to improve.
  • To feel better connected, less socially isolated and less lonely.
  • To have a better quality of life.

Our 'whole house' context is a fundamental concept behind our smart home and is key to enabling many of the features described here.

Design Considerations

The design considerations behind our smart home are also common to those we envisage for an assisted living service:

  • Real-time software 'events engine' architecture for best performance. Our smart home can typically respond to any event in less than 1ms.
  • Designed with resilience from power & network failures in mind.
  • Designed with security and privacy in mind.
  • No dependencies on cloud services to operate.
  • Broadband based (optional 3G/4G backup).
  • Very low-cost wired and wireless hybrid technology solution.
  • Massively scalable solution can support many 1000's of sensors and devices in real-time.
  • Fully configurable to any home or care home using simple configuration interfaces.
  • Fully extensible to support many types and makes of sensors.
  • Home network intrusion monitoring and device presence.
  • Common voice announcements for consistency and familiarity.
  • Designed to be minimum touch for a simple user experience.
  • Designed from outset to be technology/protocol agnostic.
  • Set of re-usable capabilities (voice announcements, alerting, etc.)
  • Large set of advanced features and capabilities, some unique.
  • Designed with whole house context at heart of solution. Service 'sees' all devices, events and makes all decisions with full context.
  • Models zones, objects and relationships in both human & machine readable format, resulting in simple man-machine interfaces.
  • Artificial intelligence engine allows natural language query and control of all sensors and devices.

We don't use expensive 'smart sensors' in our smart home. We take standard, low-cost 'off the shelf' sensors and connect them to make them extremely smart. This keeps the intelligence central and maintains our 'whole house' context, ensuring the best decisions are made quickly and reliably.

Prototype

We have been running our own smart home software in our own home for over ten years now. In this time it has evolved and improved and we continue to improve it pretty much every day. 95% of the software employed in our prototype is already deployed and running in our own home. The code that is bespoke is due to specific hardware on the Raspberry Pi we are using as the basis of this prototype.

floor plan

We have built a prototype smart home on a sheet of MDF, to create a portable demo. Our smart home software was easily ported to run on a Raspberry Pi and we have added over 30 wired and wireless sensors to represent a simple, single-storey, typical home.

Features

The following is a subset of the features and associated benefits from the smart home based assisted living prototype we have developed:

Voice Announcements

We have been using voice announcements in our own home for many years now. They are less intimidating and much more friendly than many other types of interfaces, especially once the home owners become familiar with the voice. The home becomes like another family member and some people even give it a name.

They are used to provide useful information, assistance & notifications. We have adopted a consistent English voice throughout our home, to avoid an (often annoying) mix of voices and accents. In our home these can be intelligently delivered to individual rooms (zones) or to the whole home. These can be quite simple things such as "There is someone at the front door." or "It has started raining outside." We also use them for daily weather reports, warning that doors have been left open, appliances left on, etc.

Whilst some of these may seem superfluous, they help with familiarity and we see this as an important element of acceptance and subsequently peace of mind.

Safety Lighting & Emergency Lighting

These provide both a safer environment and peace of mind. This is standard practice in care homes and commercial premises. Both are typically be powered via a UPS, to ensure they work at all times (i.e. during power outages).

Safety lighting is low-level lighting that comes on when required (i.e. dusk) and it provides just enough light to safely navigate around the home without dazzling or affecting night vision, e.g. landing, toilets, etc.

Emergency lighting is low-power lighting that comes in an emergency or during an alarm. It lights up exit routes and guides you people to safe exit points.

Mains Power Failure

Mains power failures can be disconcerting and it isn't always immediately obvious that the power has failed. More often than not it is a bulb that has failed. Our smart home provides reliable and rapid detection of mains power failure and restoration. It is a very low cost and very safe implementation. Our smart home provides clear voice announcements to inform the home owner and switches on emergency lighting if required (i.e. it is dark).

This capability assumes some kind of UPS is installed.

House Mode & Status

W are not going to go into the detail of our smart home mode and house status in this article but, when in 'Auto' mode this all works "auto-magically" in the background to remove the need to even know about this feature.

Alarms, Alerts & Notifications

We have clear definitions of these terms:

Alarm
A local audible and/or visual warning requiring urgent action by a sounder, strobe or warning light. This also results in an alert being sent to carers.

Alert
A remote warning requiring urgent action. Typically delivered in near real-time via IP-based comms, SMS, etc.

Notification
A local or remote non-urgent warning, providing useful information but no with immediate action required. Examples include mail delivered, letter box stuck open, parcel store opened, garage door has been left open, etc.

Our 'AI engine' enables notifications to be set by carers and managed for every object modelled in the smart home, e.g. "Let me know when the House is occupied".

Security System

A security system is inherent in our smart home implementation. It provides the required control and adapts its behaviour accordign to the current house status. It supports exit/entry delays, an internal sounder, external sounder and strobe and legal requirements on external alarm noise.

Access Control

Although we have not included it in our prototype, smart locks and access control is a key feature of our smart home software development and will be incorporated soon. Enabling and tracking access of people being cared for and their realtives and carers is a key element of assisted living.

Panic Buttons & Fall Alarms

We already have panic buttons in our smart home. These activate alarms and alerts. A pendant or wrist-strap fall alarm is an easy addition.

Alarms Activated By Sensors

Any standard low-cost wired alarm can be interfaced or wireless alarms/sensors. Our smart home models them and their attributes. Every 'dumb' sensor is essentially made smart by connection to our smart home.

Dawn, Dusk, Sunrise & Sunset

Our smart home calculates local sunrise and sunset times and can automate things around this but, real power and flexibility arrived when we installed a twilight sensor. This enables our home to react more effectively to local weather and lighting conditions.

Occupancy, Presence, Proximity & Location

First some definitions:

Occupancy
An unknown person is in a room/zone. Useful for general automation and control.
Presence
A known (modelled) person is in a room/zone. Useful for general automation, control and personalisation.
Proximity
A known or unknown person is near a room/zone. Wireless signals can pass through walls.
Location
A known person is near/far and/or at a known location. Useful for pre-emptive automation based on calculated ETA.

We would argue that if you smart home doesn't support zone-level occupancy detection then it isn't really a smart home. This basic concept is key to implementing automation, convenience and efficiency features. When done well, occupancy can be used for people counting and this in turn can be used to detect things like distraction burglaries.

We are not going to go into the detail of presence, proximity and location here but the true power of the smart home is unleashed when it supports a layered model containing all four of the above capabilities. Our smart home does this.

Our prototype includes a bed sensor to track how much time is spent in bed, how many times the person being cared for gets up in the night, etc. This information is analaysed and any abnormal or exceptional behaviour reported back to carers. We continue to work on our model for a bed and the attributes and characteristics that define it and its behaviour.

Timer Based Alarms

Our smart home models all of the connected sensors and devices within it. This model includes timers for how long things are on, off, open, closed, etc. The model also supports defined limits for these and each sensor or device will generate and alert or alarm if these are reached. This abnormal behaviour detection is an inherent feature of our smart home and a key telelcare capability. It also includes zones/rooms being occupied or unoccupied for too long. Some examples are: the front door being left open too long, both the front door and back door being open at same time, an appliance left on for too long, etc.

Latency

We can't stress enough how important latency in the smart home is!

Convenience Lighting

The objective of convenience lighting is to simplify and efficiently control lighting in the home. Our goal was for a zero-touch experience with no human interaction required. These lights can also be scheduled based on house status and are essentially controlled via passive interaction (e.g. door opened, PIR sensor activated) with our smart home. It enables intelligent and seamless operation in the background. Lights simply can't be left on and they are always on when required.

It is perfect for those with physical impairments, teenagers or children :-)

Temperature Monitoring

As we have mentioned before, our smart home takes a 'dumb' sensor and connects it to make it extremely smart. This includes every low-cost temperature sensors in the home, which become part of the collective intelligence. Every temperature sensor is a modelled device, each with maximum and minimum values that generate alerts. These can let carers know if it is too cold or too hot in each room of the house.

Each temperature sensor inherently becomes a fire alarm sensor. Our smart home also monitors rate of temperature change and will use this to identify fires before smoke alarms would be activated. This is done on individual sensor basis as temperature sensors in bathroom, kitchens, garages, etc. experience very different temperature profiles.

Controllers & Schedules

In our smart home we have the concept of software controllers. These enable adaptive schedules based upon house status, dusk/dawn, date, time, day of week, etc. Very simple rules can be defined to configure their behaviour and a controller can be associated with any device in our smart home.

This extremely powerful concept works because is uses whole house context. Rules can be based on any object modelled in the home, e.g. door open, room occupied, external temperature, etc. A base timing 'schedule' can also be used to make the home look occupied.

Our controllers address one of the fundamental issues in home automation, that of conflicting requests from several different sources. By centralising the decision making intelligence inside a controller we can resolve these conflicts.

Heating & Hot Water Control

The combination of controllers and sensors enables extremely powerful and efficient heating and hot water control, down to room level if need be. This can easily be linked to occupancy and behaviour and target temperatures linked to the house mode. The result is a huge improvement in efficiency and a large reduction in energy bills. And this all comes for free!

Internet Connection & Device Monitoring

Our smart home can monitor the home network and detect intrusions and unauthorised devices (e.g. connected by visiting carers). This is in addition to the network connection monitoring, which can also be monitored remotely by for example a Telecare service provider. It includes timing of devices on network. As an example, in our own home we use this to track how long our son spends gaming on our Playstation 4 console.

Security Cameras

These are an option for improved peace of mind. Our software models all networked cameras as objects. Any camera can be remotely controlled by the service to capture an image or video clip on any event occurring, e.g. someone at the Front Door or pressing the Door Bell. Best to use PIR sensors or contact sensors to activate.

Air Quality Monitoring

Whilst air-quality monitoring is not in scope of our prototype, it is a feature of our current smart home.

Performance Monitoring

Our smart home features many tools and techniques to help monitor its own performance.

User Interface & User Experience

A huge part of our work is about making the smart home smart enough to minimise the amount of user interaction as much as possible. There are obviosuly some things that require user interaction though and our focus is on making this interaction as simple and as painless as possible.

Artificial Intelligence

We are not going to cover artificial intelligence (AI) in this feature but, this is a huge and exciting focus of our current development effort. We envisage a smart home that the elderly and vulnerable can hold a conversation with and voice interaction that carers can also use to securely query and control the smart home with.

Installation

And finally, we have what many see as the spanner in the works! There is no getting away from the fact that deploying a solution such as we have outlined above requires some work. We are not going to ignore this and are working on the basis that the benefits out-weigh the effort required to install a service like this. Some of you may disagree.

We envisage two routes to deploy an assisted living solution:

  1. Managed installation - installation & rental of hub, sensors and devices to suit the home. Subscription to services as required. Optional support services and help desk.
  2. Self-install - Carer buys hub, sensors and devices to suit the home. Simple installation and configuration. Subscription to services as required (including premium support). Purchase more sensors/devices to extend service capability.

We ideally would recommend wired sensors and devices for best performance, lowest cost, and best reliability but in practice we recognise that (and have implemented in our own home) a hybrid solution is more typical. If you are currently looking at solutions that use wireless sensors only, then it will have limitations that will come to haunt you sooner or later.

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