CSE Professor Seeks to Transform Home-Monitoring Technology

SNUPIA new class of low-cost and easy-to-deploy sensing systems for homes being developed at the UW could revolutionize home monitoring, alerting homeowners to humidity or moisture in the attic, plumbing that could spring a leak, or the presence of carbon monoxide. The system employs UW Assistant Professor Shwetak Patel’s Ubicomp research lab technology.

Patel joined UW as an assistant professor in both Computer Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering, with an interest in developing easy-to-deploy sensing technologies and approaches for location and activity recognition applications. His past venture on residential energy monitoring led to a successful acquisition of his startup company in 2010 by Belkin.

Patel’s newer technology called SNUPI (Sensor Nodes Utilizing Powerline Infrastructure) explores the use of the home powerline as a large distributed antenna capable of receiving signals from ultra-low-power wireless sensor nodes. The system can detect the nodes at ranges that are otherwise impractical with traditional over-the-air reception. Patel and his team developed and tested an implementation of small ultra-low-power 27 MHz sensor nodes that transmit their data by coupling over the powerline to a single receiver attached to the powerline in the home. This general-purpose wireless sensing platform provides whole-home coverage while consuming less than 1 mW of power when transmitting (65 μW consumed in their custom CMOS transmitter). This is the lowest power transmitter to date compared to those found in traditional whole-home wireless systems.

Early Support Spurs Commercialization
Patel has been engaged with the UW Center for Commercialization (C4C) for over a year, most recently supported by C4C Technology Manager Mike Clarke, to bring his technologies to market. Collaborating at the earliest stages of research has enabled C4C to funnel more resources — commercialization grants and expertise — to Patel’s projects.

The recently developed SNUPI home sensing technology showed early promise for the commercial market, so C4C, strategizing with Patel and the other inventors, filed a patent application. SNUPI inventors include Patel’s advisee in the Ubicomp lab, EE PhD student Gabe Cohn, and their collaborators in the Wireless Sensing Lab, EE Assistant Professor Brian Otis and his PhD advisee Jagdish Pandey.

Technology Manager Clarke worked with Patel to secure a Commercialization Gap Fund (CGF) grant this past fall — funded by C4C and the Washington Research Foundation (WRF) — for $50,000 to build a demonstration unit that could help attract private investors. During the grant process, Patel and his team also received advice on market applications from C4C Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs) Ken Meyer, a technology industry expert with 20 years of experience leading both start-up and Fortune 100 companies, and Henry Berg, a director with A3 Alliance, which makes convertible debt investments in start-up and early-stage technology companies.

“Ultra low-power wireless sensor networking is an area where we are focusing C4C’s resources and developing a strong IP portfolio,” said Clarke. “SNUPI is a remarkable achievement in this space. It optimizes the size, cost, and power of the sensing node for real-world commercial usability, while taking advantage of existing home wiring as a receiving antenna and transmission line to extend its effective communication range.”

SNUPI Team Has a Start-up in Its Sights
SNUPI is on the road to establishing a start-up company that positions the technology as a replacement for wired or battery-powered in-home fire alarms and other sensors. An advantage over current products is that SNUPI-based systems can function for 20 years or more without the need to change batteries. Insurance companies should have great interest in these products, as they receive large claims as a result of fires, water damage if a refrigerator hose breaks, or a leaky roof that leads to a mold problem in the attic. SNUPI has already generated media attention in publications such as MIT’s Technology Review.