Magic monitor

4 min read

Siemens’ latest box of tricks is a portable alert that can be programmed as a security device to protect possessions or a personal alarm to help look after children or elderly people. Jon Excell reports.

Like many good ideas, it began in a beer garden. Siemens researchers Manfred Kube and Karl Bitzer were soaking up the Munich sun in the summer of 2003 when they began talking about what would happen if they attached a couple of sensors to a wireless module.

Four years later, after much tinkering, extensive trials and a couple of prototypes, the AySystem — a wireless box of electronic tricks that can be used to monitor everything from your motorbike to your ailing grandmother — is about to go on the market.

The idea is elegantly simple. Armed with noise, motion and temperature sensors, the palm-sized GSM/GPRS device is left with whatever it is you want to monitor. The device is programmed via a dedicated web service. Then, if the threshold of a programmed sensor setting is exceeded — for example, if your grandmother falls over or your motorbike is stolen — the technology will immediately notify you via text message, phone call, or email.

AySystem’s inventors believe they are on to a winner. They claim it is the first of a new generation of consumer machine-to-machine (M2M) devices that will help meet some of the challenges presented by social trends such as the ageing population and increasing urbanisation. Plus, they say, thanks to the plummeting cost of electronic components, it is cheap to produce.

In the age of the ‘killer app’, AySystem is an unusual beast: it has been designed for several potential uses. And its creators believe its potential to slot into all sorts of corners of our lives will make it popular with consumers across the globe.

According to Kube, one of the most attractive applications for the system is its use as a low-cost security device for the protection of assets. ‘If you have one of these devices attached to a motorbike, for instance, you can log on to a central server and set it up to detect theft or movement,’ he said. ‘If someone drives it off you can track it using GPRS.’

AySystem is also expected to be popular with parents and carers. It could, for instance, be used as a baby monitor, or to alert concerned parents to deviations in their children’s’ routes home from school. Kube believes the system will be particularly useful for supporting independent living for elderly family members, where the device could alert relatives to a fall, or an uncharacteristic lack of movement.

The AySystem is designed to have several potential uses and because of the falling cost of electronics, it will be cheap

The system’s functionality can be expanded thanks to a ‘snap-on concept’, whereby additional hardware devices can be plugged into the back of the box. Kube explained this could include things like GPS or a short-range gateway such as Bluetooth. In this way, the AyTerminal could be turned into a hub that aggregates events from different wireless sensors spread around the house. It would be ideal, said Kube, for a holiday home that is empty for long stretches of time.

The design of the current system has been carefully tweaked and refined over the past few years. Following their 2003 beer garden epiphany, Kube and Bitzer soldered some sensor boards to a Siemens wireless module and built a proof of concept model. This prototype, which they called AyOne, was a similar sized box to the current AyTerminal, but instead of a digital display, had a rotating front cover that could be used to select an operating mode.

Siemens produced this prototype in reasonably large quantities for field trials with mobile network operators in Europe; the feedback from these trials defined today’s AySystem product.

Though the concept is essentially the same, there are some key technical differences. The original prototype was controlled not through a web-based server but via an application on users’ mobile phones. It was considered too complex for some people and abandoned in favour of AySystem’s more intuitive and familiar web interface. The rotating mechanical input was also replaced, because when the mode of the device was remotely changed via the server the lid remained in the old position, thus indicating the wrong mode.

The improved version of the system was launched at February’s 3GSM show in Barcelona and is expected to hit the market later this year.

Kube stressed the system will not be aimed directly at end consumers but be sold through mobile network operators (MNOs). He said the M2M business is extremely attractive to mobile operators. While the technology has been used in an industrial setting, consumer M2M represents a potentially massive market. ‘M2M is a very big growth area for the telecoms industry and this is the first such device for consumers. There are other M2M devices such as coke vending machines that automatically order more bottles before they run out, industrial metering or fleet management but we wanted to address the consumer.’

AySystem customers could either sell the product separately or as part of a package, said Kube. ‘An operator could have the one-time fee of vending the terminal but also a recurring revenue — you would pay for a subscription,’ he said. Customers can use the AySystem name but may also choose to market the technology under a different name, he added.

With negotiations still subject to non-disclosure agreements, Kube declined to reveal the identity of AySystem’s customers but said the technology will initially be launched in Europe before Siemens begins looking for customers in the US.

He added that the company is also talking to some other large enterprises including security firms and value-added resellers that could use the snap-on concept and build something of their own.

The product’s flexibility is likely to be one of its big selling points, both for the ability to customise the hardware and the ease with which the java-based system can be programmed. ‘It can be easily customised. developers can program new applications that can connect the sensors in new ways, and these can be downloaded over the air from the application server by the user — it’s all very easy.’

Kube would not be drawn on the cost of the device and would only say that it will be at the lower end of the price spectrum for the mobile operators. After that, he said, it is up to them. ‘They could even give away the device for free and then just have a monthly fee.’

Whatever route the clever devices find to market, they might just be the next big thing for a telecoms industry desperate to find new ways of making money. Not bad for an afternoon down the pub.