Wireless Tech Saves Energy - and Makes Better Mousetrap

Tucked in a dark corner of the Cebit trade show, in Hall 2, lies a mousetrap. Not just any old mousetrap, but a wireless-enabled one.

The trap is a standard live mousetrap, made in China and costing about €10 (US$14), to which Germany company BSC Computer has attached a small wireless transmitter.

Jörg Hoffman hasn't caught any mice with the trap yet, but if he does then the transmitter will warn him that the trap needs inspecting. It doesn't matter how long he has to wait, because there's no battery in it to go flat.

The transmitter uses an extremely low-powered wireless protocol developed by Siemens in the 1990s for building automation, and later spun off into a separate company called EnOcean. Now, through the EnOcean Alliance, the company is trying to get the technology adopted as a standard by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and has built an ecosystem of 175 companies around it, according to Graham Martin, chairman and CEO of the alliance. Four of them -- EnOcean itself, Murata, IK Elektronik and Vicos -- now make the radio chips at the core of the system, he said.

"It's a bit like ZigBee, only without the battery," said Martin. ZigBee is a set of communications protocols built on the IEEE 802.15.4 low-power wireless personal area networking standard.

EnOcean's innovation was to harvest energy from the mechanical movement of light switches, swipe card readers and even door handles to power its tiny radio transmitter. Later came solar-powered thermostats, and radiator valves that used the Peltier effect to extract energy from the temperature differential between two surfaces.

Now, BSC has added "spring-loaded mouse trap" to the list of energy harvesters available.

German law requires food retailers to put out traps for mice -- but forbids the use of poison bait and requires that all traps be checked daily, said Hoffman. That requirement can prove extremely costly for a supermarket with 50 or more traps, and spending an extra €50 to €100 to wireless-enable a trap is a no-brainer if it means the trap only has to be visited when it has actually caught something, he said. It's a bonus that there are no batteries to change either.

One other element is required to make the mousetrap useful: an EnOcean-to-TCP/IP gateway so that a central computer can receive messages from the mousetraps and notify staff which ones need checking. By logging reports from all the traps and noting which ones are subsequently found to be empty, stores can identify traps subject to frequent false alarms (perhaps triggered by an accidental kick) and move them to better locations, Hoffman said.

EnOcean devices initially proved popular with hotels and office promoters, where they made it easy to add presence detectors and other energy-saving electrical devices without the need to remodel rooms. At first, they worked together only at the scale of an individual room -- a card reader by the door turning off lights and heating when a hotel guest went out, for example.

The advent of EnOcean-to-TCP/IP gateways in late 2008, though, turned the technology into a tool for whole-building control and also brought it to the attention of fans of home automation technology, according to Martin.

BSC uses its gateways to help its clients eliminate energy waste as well as vermin, and also offers smartphone apps for the iPhone, BlackBerry and Android phones that can remotely control lights and even monitor webcams connected to a gateway.

Elsewhere in Hall 2, on IBM's stand, Shaspa Research is showing a clutch of gateways for home automation, including one that can also act as a home media server. They look like the diminutive plug computers typified by the SheevaPlug from Marvell Technology Group, and indeed one uses the same ARM-based Marvell processor, said Shaspa CEO Oliver Goh.

You can't just buy one of these boxes from Shaspa, though: The company produces reference designs for telecommunications operators and energy utilities that want to roll out thousands of them as a service to their customers. It is also setting up an online app store where developers can offer Java-based home automation apps built on the platform, Goh said.

On the smart home and connected life stands over in Hall 19, other EnOcean Alliance members are showing wireless, battery-less light switches, thermostats, and smart metering devices for reducing or tracking energy consumption.

It's not just smart homes that can use EnOcean, though: One of the biggest buildings to use the technology is a 140,000-square-meter office, retail and hotel complex due to open this year. The Squaire at Frankfurt Airport contains 12,000 EnOcean devices, said Martin.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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