28 April 2022
by Sarah Wray
Smart home technology promises a futuristic vision of convenience and comfort, where lights sync with music and the fridge orders our groceries. But the true benefits could address the much more important challenge of helping people to live independently at home for longer.
Rising social care costs, an ageing population, and a shortage of care workers pose significant challenges for UK local authorities.
A growing number are exploring how the latest breed of assistive technologies can support vulnerable residents to live independently for longer in their own homes, improving their quality of life while at the same time helping to balance budgets.
Councils must also prepare for the analogue to digital switchover in 2025, which will require many telecare solutions to be upgraded.
Technologies being introduced include sensors, smart speakers and lights, virtual reality, and video communications. Such initiatives have the potential to demonstrate the true power of smart homes beyond gadget gimmickry and ultra-convenience.
Scale and funding are always challenges. To advance from pilots and trials, several councils are beginning to develop new partnerships and financial models.
The kitchen tells a story
Sutton Council in London has been working with Sutton Housing Group and technology company IoT Solutions Group to deploy around 150 in-home sensors which deliver real-time insights on an individual’s level of activity.
The collaboration was already ongoing around IoT use cases related to waste and parking. As demand for social care increased during the pandemic and in-person contact had to be minimised, IoT Solutions Group fast-tracked the new product.
The sensor monitors changes in atmospheric conditions – such as boiling a kettle, opening a door or making a meal, and can also identify issues such as fuel poverty risk or damp.
The battery-powered sensors, connected via a low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN), were delivered through the letterbox, with no plugs, wires or configuration required and no need for an in-home internet connection.
Device from the IoT Solutions Group in-situ
“[Residents] are able to put it in the kitchen and forget about it,” says Neal Forse, Founder & CTO at IoT Solutions Group.
“The atmospheric changes that the sensor detects are aggregated to the cloud, and that’s where we run all the analytics, using algorithms to determine human activity as opposed to anything else.”
This builds a ‘digital twin’ of each individual based on their typical patterns of behaviour and raises an immediate alert to a carer, family member or independent living officer if changes in the pattern are detected.
This offers an alternative to telecare pendant alarms, for instance, which residents have to push and, as Bradley Coupar, Smart Place Project Manager and Social Worker, Sutton Council, notes, “often end up getting hung up or put in a drawer”.
Coupar says the system has already resulted in early interventions and saved at least one life when a resident had a fall in their home.
He says the ongoing pilot has also shown the benefits of data visualisation and using machine learning and predictive analytics to become proactive, rather than reactive. It has the potential to reduce costs for the council which spends over 70 percent of its budget on social care.
“The aim isn’t to remove connection with people [or reduce] support going in, but it’s about making sure you get the right support at the right time through the right means,” …….