Patel, now a faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle, won the honor and its accompanying no-strings-attached $500,000 award (widely known as the “genius grant”) after inventing “a series of sensor technology systems for home environments with the goal of saving energy and improving daily life through a broad range of applications.” The citation continues:
Much of his work to date has focused on the development of low-cost and easy-to-deploy devices that can detect and measure household energy consumption without an elaborate network of expensive instruments. To allow residents to track their energy usage down to the level of individual appliances and fixtures, Patel’s distinctive approach leverages existing infrastructure — such as gas lines, electrical wiring, plumbing, and ventilation ducts — and requires only a minimal number of small, wirelessly connected sensors attached to the central hookup of each of these utility sources. When coupled with a machine learning algorithm that analyzes patterns of activity and the signature noise produced by each appliance, the sensors enable users to measure and disaggregate their energy and water consumption and to detect inefficiencies more effectively. In addition to the resource conservation applications of his sensor systems, Patel is also exploring their potential for home security or elder care, as they serve the related function of sensing human activity and monitoring movement throughout a building’s rooms.
Patel 29, is one the two youngest among this year’s fellows. According to an article this morning in the Seattle Times, the Alabama native completed his undergraduate studies at Georgia Tech in three years before earning a doctorate there in 2008
At Georgia Tech, Patel was researching how to monitor the health and safety of elderly people living at home. Realizing that wiring a home with cameras was too expensive and invasive, Patel came up with a unique solution.
He figured out how to disaggregate the “voltage noise” of a home’s electrical system to determine if specific devices or light bulbs were on. Each device, when turned on, sings a specific electric tune, and Patel developed algorithms to be sensitive ears.
Last year, Belkin International, the computer instrument manufacturer, bought Zensi, a startup that Patel helped to fund, and plans to begin to market his sensors in the fall. Again, from the Seattle Times:
Patel said the grant money will allow him “to take a step back and just think about a problem,” he said.
One of his new interests is low-cost electric vehicles, or cheaper gas-to-electric car conversions. He’s been tinkering on his Chevrolet Camaro in his spare time.
The grant, which is to be distributed over the next five years, is designed to allow its recipients to explore whatever they wish to explore. Here’s a video of Patel explaining his work: