Every day, the power of the silicon chip is being utilized to transform computers, vehicles, mobile devices, appliances, and dozens of other powered products. And yet, the one major sector that has thus far been largely left on the sidelines of siliconization is the building electrical grid — an infrastructure landscape that’s ripe for transformation through 21st-century technologies and innovation.

Put simply, the existing, unwieldy infrastructure of the incumbent, old-guard electrical grids within buildings are the main reason why this sector has yet to benefit from siliconization. The long service life and size constraints of existing form factors such as single gang boxes and circuit breaker panels have contributed to a lack of appetite among electrical manufacturers to make fundamental changes to any core component that utilizes this infrastructure. Traditional endpoints such as outlets, light switches, and other installed electrical products like appliances and smart home gadgets, require large electromechanical parts to function, rely on 1950s-era technology, and have limited room for design innovations due to the need for universal compatibility with the existing form factors. This is about to change.

Recent solid-state breakthroughs in control of electricity in silicon chips have given electrical device manufacturers their first real opportunity to leverage modern intelligence and robust data sensing in products that can be easily installed in any building on the planet without having to rewire. In the coming years, silicon-based, AI-empowered electrical endpoints will enable a building’s electrical infrastructure to provide a built-in smart building ecosystem, as well as energy and environmental awareness, enhanced life safety solutions, management, and communication capabilities.

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The answer is a solid-state solution — systems-on-a-chip (SOC) — for power management. The small size of these chips allows them to be easily integrated into electrical products within those existing form factors — the single gang boxes and retrofitted breaker panels — so endpoints can now be designed to include any number of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors or communication components. The result is that these endpoints can now have expanded functionality and deliver fully connected smart building intelligence without requiring any overhaul of product form factors that would trigger an invasive installation, such as cutting drywall to expand beyond a single gang box size, or the installation of a brand-new circuit-breaker panel.

Individual endpoints powered by a solid-state system-on-a-chip, such as the one we’ve developed at Amber, present a significant improvement over existing technology. For example, this innovation makes it simple to turn every room’s light switch, outlets, and circuit breakers into essentially mini-computers, with up to ten times the sensing capabilities and smart features of currently available smart switches and outlets. It’s like putting the intelligence of a smart phone in every electrical endpoint in a building.

Still, the true power of these chips lies in working together throughout a building to form a unique and intelligent power management, sensing, control, and connectivity ecosystem. By providing actionable data, the technology offers immediate opportunity to improve everything from fire safety to energy savings to indoor air quality.

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Smart Skyscrapers

To illustrate the impact of this technology, it is easiest to consider a skyscraper in a busy city. At every point from the building’s main power panel to an apartment’s own outlets, new solid-state silicon chip technologies can provide previously impossible benefits.

First, the skyscraper could utilize an energy traffic controller that intelligently monitors power sources to optimally combine available wind, solar, battery, grid, or generator power to maximize the building’s efficiency, reduce costs, and help manage external events such as power outages or an over-stressed grid.

Next in line are the circuit breakers that deliver power throughout the building. With silicon chip technology, these intelligent, connected breakers will track and wirelessly report energy usage in real time, down to the socket-level, while operating 100 percent arc free because the breaker is solid-state, there are no moving parts that can form a dangerous electrical arc. The faults that can also produce these arcs are sensed thousands of times faster than current conventional electromechanical breakers and are mitigated long before these faults become big enough to become dangerous. With integrated wireless communications, a solid-state circuit breaker could provide immediate data on the specific endpoint that caused a trip, identify causal factors, and enable wireless shut-off or resetting. 

This also allows for drastically more effective fire and life safety protection through power surge mitigation. Circuit breakers that utilize digital power control technology switch thousands of times faster than conventional circuit breakers, and the embedded system-on-a-chip intelligence can accurately identify a real, dangerous electrical anomaly from a false event, virtually eliminating nuisance trips in buildings.

Finally, power reaches the electrical endpoints, which can now be designed to include any number of sensors for specific needs. There’s no limit to what they can offer, from moisture detection and voice control to intercoms and scheduled automation. Security sensors, micro-cameras, air quality detectors, pressure sensors, wireless transmitters and receivers, and even motion detectors, can be built into every endpoint like outlets and light switch receptacles. With this unprecedented level of sensing and control, smart endpoints in the building electrical grid can greatly improve the scope of coverage and value delivered by smart building automation, access control, fire control, and security. And, with endpoints now becoming hyper-intelligent multi-sensor smart nodes in buildings, the need to install separate battery-powered sensors on walls is virtually eliminated.

These are not new ideas, but the challenge of actually implementing them has prevented these solutions from appearing on the market. Our work at Amber has now created the ability to fit all of these electronics into the small, fixed spaces of the standard universal single gang boxes and circuit breaker panels.

As early as 2023, commercial building owners, universities, transit centers, government buildings, data centers, property managers, homeowners, and others around the world will be able to transform their living and workspaces into truly intelligent, sensor-rich environments that deliver exponentially greater value than the tradition or even the current simplistic smart outlets and switches. This new solid-state technology transformation is nothing short of the opportunity for electrical product manufacturers to upgrade every electrical endpoint, in every building on earth, to silicon architecture with modern embedded intelligence.

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