How revolutionary digital circuit breakers are supported by OTA updates

Discover how Atom Power's digital circuit breaker revolutionizes industrial power settings with nanosecond speed, Mender's OTA software updates, and integrated safety features.

This interview with Tim Strunck, Director of Software Engineering at Atom Power, was originally published on www.devicechronicle.com.

Tim is a hands-on technical leader with over fifteen years of experience in the design, implementation, and management of connected systems. He understands hardware design, firmware development, embedded applications, distributed systems, and cloud solutions.He has also architected and Implemented several large commercial and industrial IoT systems. He knows systems for OTA software updates very well. 

Digital circuit breaker

Now Tim is putting his expertise, strong experience and passion for IoT and digital into the development of revolutionary digital circuit breakers at Atom Power. These revolutionary products based on a semi conductor supplants analogue-mechanical approaches to circuit breaking in industrial power settings. This digital circuit breaker dramatically improves critical safety, supports transfer switching, distributed energy resources, remote operation and high density EV chargers. 

Launching first in the US, this is the first UL-certified solid state circuit breaker with no moving parts. It uses a microcontroller and is completely electronic, and it opens in nanoseconds which brings remarkable safety. You also get high quality metering, on off control, diagnostics, and quick identification of why a trip occurred. A user can also adjust the trip settings within the breaker so you can set it to a specific current depending on your application. 

Importance of OTA software updates

Since pre production, Tim and his team of engineers and developers have realised the importance of having robust and secure OTA software updates for their digital circuit breaker product. Tim did not want to go down the route of building a homegrown software updater having had previous experience in implementing OTA software updates in custom, homegrown builds. He admits that this kind of project is not something that most organisations will want to consider. They should opt for a best-of-breed expert system to deliver the OTA updates. 

The first market is larger commercial-industrial settings where larger format breakers in the 100 to 200 amp watts range are required. As the product develops you can reduce the size and get them into the smaller form factor. 

Tim describes how this digital circuit breaker combines a lot of things into one. Whereas traditionally, in order to control a circuit on and off and meter it, you would need 3 different devices. These would be a revenue grade power meter, a contacter; and a circuit breaker In the new digital world, these three components are integrated into a single device. On top of that, Tim says that you get the safety benefits in terms of the reduction in arc flash, speed of opening of the device which is a remarkable progression over mechanical circuit breakers. 

Up to this point, Atom Power has had pre production devices out in the field in pilots with industrial customers. In April and May 2021, the first full production devices go out, these are 3rd generation and designed to be mass market products. 

Mender is used for the Yocto build pipeline and the Open Embedded platform for both generations of the product. Both are integrated directly into Mender and it makes it really easy to generate and port updates. In the update management process, Tim says that Mender offers a great deal of flexibility in the ways that updates can be rolled out to customers and the manual updates features are also very important. Many of Atom Power’s industrial customers do not want to connect their power infrastructure to the Internet as the industrial space can be vulnerable with a lot of legacy protocols. For these types of scenarios, customers can upload the Mender file through our interface and update that way. 

In the 3-5 years, Tim believes that the company could be providing millions of devices and so it will drive to a large scale. “There is huge potential behind the technology.” Tim points out that the Remote Terminal feature in Mender would be very useful for diagnosing beta customer problems. “Especially as the customers are electrical engineers and electrical technicians so having them connect into a Linux terminal to try to diagnose issues can be very difficult. This is especially true from a security perspective, everything in the environment is certificate-based so getting them connected is usually difficult to impossible.” Tim and his team spend most of their time addressing security which is a critical need in the power industry.  This entails full TLS over the CANBUS, all software images must be signed, everything must authenticate with X509 certificates, and there must be hardware encryption on all devices including gateways. “Breakers are controlling critical infrastructure, it’s a powerful product that needs security. Manufacturing systems, chemical processing systems, hospitals, telecommunication applications for running equipment on large networks.” 

The industry is fast moving. EV charging is creating strain on the grids as they exist today. Machine learning applications are critical for energy management, demand response type applications, load shed or bringing renewables into the grid. Tim also describes the great excitement in the industry about the ability to control sources of loads intelligently all the way down to the circuit breaker for better stability, making it more efficient for supporting EVs. Electrification is driving a lot of this. 

Supplanting integrated circuit breaker solutions

Tim says Atom Power doesn’t have a lot of direct competition. “We see integration plays but Atom Power is different: we put the semiconductor and circuit breaker into one device. The competition does it at the panel level so you will have a circuit breaker panel, meters and contactors with a programmable logic controller (PLC) controlling it. “There is much complexity with these competing “integrated” solutions, they can be expensive and difficult to manage in comparison to the Atom Power solution.” 

Tim also says that domain experience and speed is to Atom Power’s advantage in the marketplace. “Larger companies tend to innovate slower. 4 years ago we had a certified solution, and we designed our own semiconductor for this application, competitors may not have this capability. It is a big shift from thermo mechanical circuit breaker to an intelligent connected semiconductor product, same functionality with a very different approach.”

We wish Tim and his colleagues at Atom Power well as they digitize the circuit breaker market. 

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