The home automation hot pot

With the Intenet of Things spilling over into the home, the automation networks of the near future could resemble an electronic patchwork quilt.

he ability of devices by different manufacturers to talk with one another is crucial.

The ability of devices by different manufacturers to talk with one another is crucial. Source: The Australian

Home automation is no longer the province of technology’s early adopters. Connecting your smart appliances, lights, air conditioner thermostat, motion detectors, door locks and even motorised blinds and garage doors to the internet is catching on.

It’s all part of the new era of the net known as the Internet of Things, or IoT. Instead of being primarily a network connecting humankind through their computers, laptops and mobile dev­ices, the internet is evolving to connect a predicted 37 billion sensors, cameras and other electronics by 2020.

Clearly, we humans are being easily outnumbered ­online.

This movement is spilling over into the home, where some of the biggest names in computing and communications are gearing to sell you everything from internet-connected meters that monitor power usage to medical devices that can alert your doctor via the internet if they detect a potentially dangerous event.

The problem is this is not happening in harmony. In fact, there’s intense rivalry between major players inside and outside the home. Inside the home, the likes of Apple, Google, Samsung and LG are gearing to sell you domestic automation products that may run on their own special home networks.

These may not talk to the devices of rival companies. The temperature sensor you bought from one manufacturer may not talk to a heater that operates on a rival manufacturer’s network.

The electronic patchwork quilt

Add to that planned built-in connection options by major fibre infrastructure and telecommunications companies, power and gas companies, and firms such as Belkin and Philips with their retrofit home automation products, and the home automation networks of the near future could resemble an electronic patchwork quilt.

“The problem is, right now, all these big infrastructure owners are building their vertical networks. They think they can do it separately from each other,” says Branka Vucetic, a professor with the school of electrical and information engineering at the University of Sydney. “That’s not possible, but that’s where the world is going.”

Inside the home, it may seem that the answer lies in linking all our small home sensors to a regular home Wi-Fi router — the one we use to connect our home PCs and phones.

But devices such as small temperature sensors can be tiny; they are battery operated and their radios have limited range. They may not reliably connect to the net using regular Wi-Fi. And battery-operated sensors connected to Wi-Fi directly may chew through the juice. You’ll be forever changing batteries.

That’s why home automation providers look to alternative networks. One of the most popular is mesh. Instead of talking to a home router, the devices of a mesh network are interconnected and relay data to each other.

Philips Hue lighting system is an example of this. A string of internet-connected Philips light bulbs communicate by sending internet data via nearby bulbs. Each bulb has a small, built-in wireless radio that doesn’t consume much power as it only has to communicate with bulbs nearby.

Yet a mesh network can be easily extended just by adding other bulbs.

From military to mainstream

Mesh is an example of tech­nology that was originally developed for military use — for mobile networking in field operations — but is popular inside the home.

LG’s music flow system and Samsung’s wireless multi-room speakers — both new products — use mesh networking.

In the US in June, Samsung launched smart LED light bulbs that use a combination of Bluetooth and mesh networks to communicate within a home.

For years, ZigBee has been the most recognised and popular standard used by connecting dev­ices on mesh networks. ZigBee can be configured to support 64,000 devices per network.

Because it is a standard, ZigBee devices made by one manufacturer can communicate with one another. So if one sensor detects motion, it can trigger an internet connected light switch to turn on.

According to the ZigBee Alliance, more than 400 companies produce ZigBee devices and more than 600 ZigBee products have been certified since the alliance began in 2002.

ZigBee is designed for low-cost, low-power wireless sensors and, in some cases, batteries can last for more than a year.

But the likes of Google are seeking to go their own way with what could be an incompatible variation. Google has invested in home automation through its smart thermostat Nest, which can link to devices such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

Google, which bought Nest Labs in January for $US3.2 billion, also purchased home security camera start-up Dropcam for $US555 million. It brings motion sensing to the Nest networks and an ability to automatically record events when an alarm is triggered.

In July, Google announced an alternative home networking protocol to ZigBee, called Thread. It said Yale Security, Silicon Labs, Samsung, Nest, Freescale Semiconductor, Big Ass Fans and ARM were on board with Thread, as was Vint Cerf, recognised as one of the “fathers of the internet”, and a Google vice-president.

So expect Nest Thread networks to connect many devices. They will include Merc­edes Benz cars that will be able to tell your home network that you are leaving or arriving. In future a smart lock could be programmed to open the front door if the right car drove into the ­carport.

Google’s recent purchase of home hub start-up Revolv further underlines its big push into homes, which so far has been in the US and Europe.

Apple, meanwhile, appears to have adopted low-energy Bluetooth as the standard for its home automation system, Home­Kit. Partners include Honeywell, whose Lyric Smart Thermostat competes with Nest; August and Schlage smartlocks; and Philips and Haier, which make whitegoods.

Is the network reliable?

The ability of devices by different manufacturers to talk with one another is crucial, as is the reliability of network connections, a point emphasised by Australia’s NBN Co.

“If data from your dishwasher is being collected in order to identify energy-saving capabilities, a consistent connection is imperative to determine how long the device has been running and how much power it has used,” says NBN Co spokesman Tony Brown.

Hubs — or gateways that connect one manufacturer’s devices to the net — will be crucial in ensuring that different home ecosystems can communicate through them. If not, the benefits of home automation may be piecemeal.

This story was first published in The Australian.