M2M APPS: Perhaps you could start by outlining what your company does and tell us why you decided to call the company EnOcean.
ANDREAS SCHNEIDER: Our core competence is the ability to harvest energy and put it to work in wireless applications. We combine three technologies. One is energy harvesting, getting tiny amounts of energy from the environment. It can come from changes in temperature or light. The electrical energy that’s obtained this way is stored in capacitors. It can also come from small mechanical changes such as pushing a switch. In this case the energy that’s harvested is used immediately: nothing is stored. RF wireless communications is the second technology. Signals are transmitted in order to activate an event, for example, turn a lamp on or off. The third is the combination of technologies one and two with low power consumption: so low that sensors can run maintenance-free without batteries. It’s the combination of all three that enables the creation of a wireless, energy-harvesting sensor. The name EnOcean comes from all the unused energy that‘s out there in oceans. Our technology harvests that energy. So the company's name is a fusion of the words "energy" and "ocean".
M2M APPS: How does the technology work?
ANDREAS SCHNEIDER: There are two basic modes. Pressing a mechanical switch generates energy and it’s used immediately: for example to turn a lamp on or off. But if you are measuring parameters in a building, then ambient temperature differences or light will generate energy that is harvested and stored because it is not needed immediately. Timers are incorporated in the sensor modules in order to wake sensors up at a predetermined time, take a measurement, and then go back to sleep.
M2M APPS: How long can you store the energy? Capacitors drain away.
ANDREAS SCHNEIDER: The products we’re shipping right now can retain their charge for quite a long time. Anything from a week to six months: it depends on the application. For example, our solar powered sensor module STM 330 uses very little energy. A little less than four hours of charging in daytime and living room light levels are adequate for uninterrupted operation if measurements are made every fifteen minutes. With its energy storage mechanism fully charged the module is fully functional for several days in complete darkness.
M2M APPS: How do the sensors function in an M2M network? Surely there are power and distance restraints.
ANDREAS SCHNEIDER: There are restraints, but think about the network in a typical smart home. The harvesting end nodes send very short signals lasting around one millisecond to a room controller, so very little energy is required. The controller is line powered, so it can send sensor information to M2M and cloud solutions over a cellular network. It would also send information to the HVAC system, which adjusts the temperature. If the home was locked up a window sensor could indicate that a burglary was taking place and in this case a signal might be sent to the police or a security firm. It could also go to the owner’s smartphone. Two-way communications can also be realized using more sophisticated harvesting protocols. A really nice feature of these networks is the ability to retrofit office buildings of widely different shapes and sizes with wireless environment and security sensors.
M2M APPS: What kind of traction are you getting?
ANDREAS SCHNEIDER: When we formed the company in 2001 we decided to focus on building automation at first. Today our solutions can be found right around the world and since 2003 they’ve been installed in over two hundred and fifty thousand buildings. And there are more than 250 companies in the EnOcean Alliance, which is a worldwide non-profit initiative based in California that establishes innovative automation solutions for sustainable building projects. A lot of growth is coming from Asia, particularly Japan, where there is a lot of interest in energy-efficient buildings following the tsunami.
M2M APPS: Apart from building automation and smart homes, what other market sectors do you address?
ANDREAS SCHNEIDER: Going from building automation to smart homes was a logical development. Going from smart homes to the smart grid is the next step. Explosion-proof environments are an interesting sector, for example, sensors are being deployed to measure the position of valves. However, some interesting and less obvious applications are being developed by our customers in transportation. In Europe bus passengers press a button when they want the driver to let them off at the next stop. Regular push buttons communicate to the driver via yards of cable. Our technology allows this to be done using a small, battery-free microchip. When the stop button is pushed a radio signal is sent to the driver’s receiver module. This self-powered solution saves over 100 yards of cabling.
M2M APPS: Do you have use cases where your technology was the only way to realize the required solution?
ANDREAS SCHNEIDER: An Alliance member, BSC computer, developed an innovative system for pest control in foodstuff production. It consists of one line powered RF-Cellular data concentrator as well as lots of RF mousetraps that talk to the concentrator. The mouse generates the necessary energy by stepping on the tensioned rocker in the trap and that triggers an SMS message that is used to spring the trap and inform the service. The mice are trapped: they’re not killed. For legal requirements as well as for health and safety reasons they have to be checked every 12 hours, which means that they must be registered. Regular mousetraps were not practical, as these would have resulted in considerable personnel costs for carrying out and registering the results. Our sensors have a unique ID and that is used to indicate the location of traps that have been closed.
M2M APPS: It’s clear that you’ve pioneered a very innovative technology. Can you say a few words about your R&D and other activities?
ANDREAS SCHNEIDER: Sure. Our main R&D activities focus on energy harvesting and ultra low-power techniques and technologies. They are our core competences. And then we have software, which brings everything together. Around thirty people, half the staff, are engaged in research and engineering. They are mainly located in the company’s headquarters near Munich. We market OEM products which enable a variety of energy harvesting applications such as window contacts, temperature and humidity sensors, or light, pressure and gas sensors as well as position switches or a variety of industrial switches. Systems integrators market and implement the products. That way we can continue to focus on our core competences. The International Electrotechnical Commission ratified the RF technology we employ in mid-April. This new standard, ISO/IEC 14543-3-10, is the first and only wireless standard that is also optimized for energy harvesting solutions and, therefore, for EnOcean's self-powered wireless technology. It covers OSI Layers one to three. It lays the foundation for interoperable wireless solutions and it’s comparable to standards such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The EnOcean Alliance has agreed on layers four to seven, so it’s a complete protocol stack.
M2M APPS: How do you see the industry developing in the next 12 months?
ANDREAS SCHNEIDER: That’s a big question. In general I see continued growth across the board and I’d like to see the Internet of Things take off. It’s been near takeoff for quite a while. Having the international wireless standard that’s optimized for ultra low energy needs, including energy harvesting technology, will be an important enabler. And I think we’ll see more solutions based on the combination of RF and cellular technologies.
M2M APPS: OK. That’s really interesting. Signaling bus drivers and catching mice are relatively simple, but effective applications and many more must be in the pipeline. Thank you Andreas.