For the past year or so, Itron has been promising to turn its core product, smart meters, into something more like hardened, edge-of-the-grid computing platforms. Sure, Itron’s smart meters will still meter electricity -- but that could be just one of the applications they’re capable of handling.
Over the past few years, Itron has been working closely with Cisco on this vision, merging the networking giant’s wireless communications technologies and grid routers into its own smart meters and software. Both companies have also embraced Linux as the operating system for their grid-edge devices -- a major improvement over legacy device software operating systems in terms of flexibility and openness to a world of programmers and app developers.
Now Itron is opening the software platform that runs all this grid-edge intelligence to a broader audience. Last week, the Liberty Lake, Wash.-based company launched its Itron Riva platform, which works with Cisco’s IOx “fog computing” platform to deliver “computing power, control and analytics for automated decision-making at the edge of the network.”
Riva’s first announced customer is China Light and Power, Hong Kong’s electric utility, which has been working with Itron and Cisco since 2012 on a long-term plan to roll out around 2.4 million smart meters over the next decade. Last month, Itron announced that the utility was tapping Itron’s “Adaptive Communications Technology” to allow the utility to switch between wireless communications and powerline carrier (PLC) technology.
This comms-switching capability, which comes standard with the new Riva release, is important in dense urban environments, where wireless mesh networks can’t be expected to reach individual apartments in big concrete high-rises. PLC is an ideal solution for these settings, however. “The industry’s biggest challenge has historically been the last 5 percent, the last 2 percent of customers,” Simon Pontin, Itron’s CTO, told me in an interview this week. “Getting strong data links to hard to reach places -- whether we solve it with RF or with PLC, I’ll be glib and say we don’t care anymore.”
Cisco is a key partner on this front, providing Itron both wireless and PLC technology for North American, European and Asian markets. But using two different flavors of physical communications is just one of the many supporting features behind what Itron and Cisco hope to turn into a true internet of things (IOT) platform, he said.
“We can do any communications technology, and we can run the compute power on the most applicable place on the network,” he said. “The anchor may still be AMI, just as the anchor of the smartphone may be making telephone calls. But most people don’t buy it for the telephone anymore.”
This idea of smart meter as smartphone, running applications and data analytics on its own and in concert with its neighboring devices, isn’t unique to Itron, of course. We’ve seen the same concept emerge in Silver Spring Networks’ SilverLink platform, and most of the big smart meter makers are embedding more computing power, memory and programmability into their devices as well.
Meanwhile, as devices start to carry the chipsets capable of managing more complex software instructions, the proprietary world of device operating software is quickly being replaced by open-source software such as Linux and Java, he said. “There’s that inflection point where the cost of embedded Linux becomes achievable for this,” he said.
Utilities such as Duke Energy and Toronto Hydro have been linking real-world distributed energy assets like solar inverters and batteries through distributed networks built on open-source technology, at least in pilot projects. But we’ve yet to see big grid vendors roll out commercial products to take full advantage of the potential of this approach.
Pontin didn’t specify what China Light and Power (CLP) is planning to do with Itron Riva’s capabilities, though the company has "got some work underway on what I’d call the killer apps for the ecosystem,” he said. Itron has been CLP’s meter data management software provider for years now, and the company identified consumer engagement as a key part of its plans with the utility when it launched its smart metering project back in 2012.
Itron has also been working with electric-vehicle charging system maker ClipperCreek, solar inverter manufacturer Fronius, and other partners with devices that can “talk” to Itron’s smart meters or Cisco’s grid routers. On the analytics side, being able to gather and process data at each device could turn each meter into its own analytics node, or allow different devices to react to grid events that happen too fast for centrally controlled grid operating systems to be able to manage.
Meanwhile, Itron and Cisco are looking beyond the world of energy, with plans to use their distributed devices as nodes for IOT projects like networked streetlights, home (or apartment) automation, and many ways to use smartphones to interact with the network.
“The apps can be completely tailored to the needs of the utility or the customer,” Pontin said. “We’re working on a bunch of apps with CLP...but it’s a Linux app; it’s not something you have to spend two years defining and creating and launching,” as was the case when using old-school, proprietary software and hardware.
“This is aimed at allowing utilities to stop having to make technology choices, and getting back to innovating around the business problem,” he said. “I think we’re going to see an explosion of questions like, 'Now that we can do this, how can we do these follow-on things?'” In other words, the platform is here -- stay tuned for the apps.