Case Study: Utility Company R&D

Smarter Smart Metering

A Leading UK Utility Company

Our client is a leading UK utility company. Faced with a massive infrastructure investment, they came to JFDI to answer key questions: could they do smart metering without the infrastructure, and could they incentivise consumers to make usage savings too?

“JFDI’s solution was awesome. From a limited brief, their methodical, multi-disciplinary  engineering-based approach took us from zero to an entire prototype system in just three months. Taking it forward to field trials was a no-brainer.”

Consumer Services Manager

Smarter Smart Metering Rearch and Development Project for Leading UK Utility Company

Our client was attempting to lead the way in consumer usage savings, but was searching for a way to encourage users to be more economical that worked better across the board than mere financial incentives.

The company had ventured early into Smart Metering, and was unimpressed with the meter companies’ offerings. The initial generation of drive-by meters still only ended up being read every few months. The next generation of connectivity would require infrastructure investment of up to £50M, against a background of competitor companies having problems implementing the very same technology. Surely there was a middle ground?

JFDI’s Approach

JFDI knew that the only realistic way of engaging consumers in this way is through the appropriate and measured use of Gamification techniques. Gamification requires data, a lot more data than was being provided by existing metering arrangements.

So we needed to read the meter a lot more often. Yes, the next generation of meters would allow this, but with a closed and proprietary system, no direct access to the data. And with a huge infrastructure bill (£50k per receiver mast, one mast per 3 sq km) and a long lead time for its construction.

Our wealth of experience guides our clients to stick to their core competencies, and operate their core business. Our client isn’t a communications company, and has no wide-area communications network of its own. Yet their meter supplier was driving them down that road, towards creating their own network. Competitors were already experiencing difficulties with their fixed networks.

Fresh thinking was needed. So JFDI went back to engineering basics, identified each of the challenges, and solved them one by one.

The Challenges

1. Getting the data from the existing meter

Without changing meters, JFDI experimented with various methods for reading the meter. Accuracy, reliability and low power consumption were all of vital importance. Also important was the ability to operate in hostile environments. Existing meter stock from several manufacturers required several casing designs, with IP6x penetration ratings an important factor.

JFDI’s solution is 100% accurate within normal usage conditions and remains in an ultra low-power mode for 99.98% of the time, ensuring that the lifetime of the consumer-replaceable batteries is only slightly shorter than their shelf-life. #classified

3D design and 3D printing allowed JFDI to rapidly prototype casing designs resulting in a final design suitable for user-installation and mass production.

2. Transmitting the data to a local receiver

Meter placement varies widely, making RF communications challenging. So we needed to stick to low freqencies and wide-bandwith, frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum technologies, and have a local station for receiving and relaying the data. This is exactly what the meter suppliers fixed networks do. Transmission four times a day was plenty for everyone’s purposes.

JFDI came up with an innovative and revolutionary combination of technologies that ensure reliable transmission & reception, whilst not requiring a private fixed network to be installed. #classified

3. Relaying the data to the cloud

Our client had no prior use of cloud computing facilities, and no scalable, fault-tolerant way of automatically receiving and storing data transmitted to it from meters.

JFDI created cloud-based backend storage, a customer web portal, and a secure REST API to glue the process together.

4. Fault tolerance, redundancy and failover

Some smart metering solutions aren’t very fault tolerant, and data gets lost in transmission. Some seem to take security not at all seriously, because after all it’s only metering data. When it all breaks down, which seems to be all too often, someone needs to go and read the meters, which is slow and costly.

We built in the best currently available security protocols with options to upgrade security in future. Each stage in the process caches its own data, and possible outages are recognised and reported. We even managed to create redundancy in the system. #classified

5. A Gamified Consumer App

The final stage in the process was to use all the gathered data to achieve the other original goal: Engaging consumers to encourage them to exhibit more desirable behaviours, and refrain from the behaviours that are detrimental. Gamification can help with this. But creating a gamified user experience is a specialist job.

As well as a customer service portal, a mobile app for smart phones was cited as a major requirement, to serve as a site and focus for the gamified process.

JFDI enlisted the help of leading gamification consultancy Gamification+ to design a roadmap of features to not only enthuse and engage users now, but keep them engaged far into the future. A range of reward types ensures that the app will appeal to all the diverse personality groups comprising our client’s consumer base.

Project Results

JFDI presented the system proof of concept and device prototypes to our client in September 2017. The next phase, a two-stage refinement and field trials programme, is due to begin in early 2018.

Company:

Country or Region:

  • United Kingdom

Industries:

  • Retail Utilities Supply

Company Profile

The company is a leading UK utility company, seeking innovative uses of technology to better engage consumers in making usage savings for the sake of the environment.

Software & Hardware

  • Microsoft Azure
  • Custom electronics design
  • C++ firmware engineering
  • LoRa
  • Espressif ESP32
  • Atmel microcontrollers
  • 3D design & printing

Services

  • R&D Consultancy
  • Process Modelling
  • Systems Design
  • Gamification Consultancy
  • Electronics Design
  • Firmware Engineering
  • Software Engineering
  • Cloud Technologies Consultancy
  • Cloud Technologies Development
  • Product Design
  • Production Engineering