UC scientists work on buildings with brains

The Associated Press
Saturday May 26, 2001

BERKELEY — Knowledge is power; information technology is power savings, say University of California scientists who are responding to the state’s energy crisis by teaching buildings to be smarter consumers. 

“The potential for this technology ... is huge,” said A. Richard Newton, dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering. 

Berkeley scientists demonstrated their new technology Friday, showing how a network of tiny computers scattered throughout a campus building can keep tabs on light and heat. 

More than 50 of the microcomputers, called “smart dust motes” and each about the size of a matchbox, have been installed in corridors and corners throughout Cory Hall on the Berkeley campus.  

The devices have wireless radio transmitters and receivers and a tiny operating system that allows them to network and report back to a central computer.  

They work on battery and solar power and currently cost about $100 a unit to produce. The goal is to produce them at $1 apiece. 

For Friday’s demonstration, engineering professor Kris Pister used information from the dust motes to generate a computerized graph showing minute-to-minute light and temperature use in a particular room. 

Looking at his own lab, Pister pointed out that a drop in the line tracking light occurred around sunset, followed by a sharp peak shortly after midnight when a hardworking student turned on the light to do some work. 

The sensors are capable of using wireless signals to turn off large air conditioning units on the roof of the building to save power and then monitoring rooms in the building to make sure sensitive equipment such as computers aren’t getting too hot.  

Turning off equipment during peak load hours could be done by hand, but having the sensors in charge makes the conservation measures automatic and much more efficient, Pister said. 

Ultimately, the tiny computers could include motion detectors which would turn off power to a room if it were vacant for a certain period of time and turn it back on when someone re-entered.  

Not incidentally, scientists are working with privacy experts on some of the social aspects of this technology. 

This summer, with a state energy crunch looming, scientists plan to use the sensors to conserve at Cory Hall on a regular basis and to turn off all nonessential equipment when electricity officials issue warnings that they’re running out of energy.  

The sensors also can help shift use of energy intensive equipment, like the 40-ton air chillers on the building’s roof, to nighttime, when energy use throughout the state drops.  

Sensor readings taken during the day will help forecast how long the chiller needs to run at night to get the building cool enough to last without air conditioning in the day. 

Although they’re still in the development stage, the devices could one day be installed in homes, allowing owners to call up their energy use on a computer and see how much each appliance, from nightlight to refrigerator, is costing to run at any particular moment. 

“People really have no idea where electric power is actually being burned in their homes or offices,” Pister said. 

Using the devices throughout campus could generate a savings of up to $900,000 a year, Pister said. 

Pister, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, is the developer of the sensors, part of a larger project he calls smart dust. 

Eventually, he hopes to produce sensors no bigger than a grain of sand.  

Applications for that – which sound 22nd-century, but could be only 10 years away, scientists say – could include dumping a handful into a bucket of paint and painting sensors on the wall. 

Pister now has a device smaller than an aspirin that will transmit some data but isn’t as reliable as the matchbox models. 

The smart energy technology is being developed at Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, a public-private partnership between four UC campuses and more than 20 corporate partners.  

UC officials hope to receive $33 million in state funding this year, although they are waiting to see whether that will survive budget-cutting now going on in Sacramento. 


On the Net: