Pittsburgh Technical Council

Powering Down: RMU Students Build Smartphone Controlled Power Outlets

Powering Down: RMU Students Build Smartphone Controlled Power Outlets

Article Published: September 25, 2014

You may have turned off the TV and all the lights before leaving for work this morning, but that doesn’t mean your appliances aren’t still drawing power. The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that 5 to 10 percent of residential electricity is consumed by devices that are plugged in 24 hours a day.

IMG_1974A team of engineering students from Robert Morris University has a solution: The ProxiMate, an electrical wall outlet that can be shut off via a mobile device, cutting power to appliances that are plugged in but not in use.  Originally conceived as a smartphone-controlled circuit breaker system, the project was one of five winning entries in last year’s nationwide Utility of Tomorrow Contest, organized by enterprise software firm SAP. The winning teams each earned a trip over the summer to Palo Alto, Calif., to work with SAP engineers and other industry experts to build a prototype of their device.

The idea originally came to life at Robert Morris as part of the Energy Storage, Conversion, and Transportation course taught by Tony Kerzmann, assistant professor of engineering.

Circuit breakers control the flow of electricity to multiple outlets and even multiple rooms within a single home, making it harder to pick and choose to cut power to individual appliances. Adam Nusairat, who built the prototype, said he had assumed that everyone knew how to swap out an individual circuit breaker in a breaker box. But the professionals he worked with in Palo Alto disabused him of that notion, and pointed out that most people would have to call an electrician. 

So Nusairat, who works at FedEx Ground in Moon Township as a maintenance engineer, decided to work on a wall outlet that could be controlled remotely via a wireless Internet network.

“I thought that since you are going to have to hire an electrician anyway, then I might as well build an outlet instead,“ said Nusairat. He took apart a power strip to create the prototype wall outlet.

“There are business applications, too. From a safety standpoint, you could disable machinery,” said Nusairat, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and is now pursuing a master’s in engineering management as part of RMU’s integrated degree program.

Alex Truzzi, a junior majoring in software engineering,  developed the smartphone app that would allow homeowners to control the outlet remotely.  

“In my time at SAP, I not only learned very useful software practices but had some extremely useful networking advice and experience due to the contest,” said Truzzi. He and Nusairat plan to continue to develop ProxiMate and ultimately hope to take it to market.

Two other mechanical engineering students worked on the project in Kerzmann’s course, Raymond Roy and Shane Rybka, both of whom graduated from RMU in May.

"This competition is an example of interdisciplinary engaged learning -- faculty and students solving real-world problems -- that takes place inside and outside the engineering classroom," said Maria Kalevitch, dean of the RMU School of Engineering, Mathematics, and Science.

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