Home Automation: What You Need to Turn Sci-Fi Into Reality
Yuri Lomako & Vyacheslav Z. Tibilashvili
It's been a while since most of us stopped marveling at technological innovations cropping up in our daily lives. Future inventions that were presented to us in the often black-and-white sci-fi flicks of the 1960's-1980’s, have now become an everyday reality. Home Automation bears a striking resemblance to those movies, and it's rightfully considered to be one of the more promising areas of innovation by many technologists and technology vendors.
However, just like with any promising technology, not all that glitters is gold. A technology vendor or entrepreneur looking to invest time and effort in a technology undertaking related to Home Automation must find a well-measured sub-niche for their investment to pan out. This is best done by taking a close look at the concept's history, as well as the endeavors, successes, and failures of the predecessors. The latter will help find answers to several key questions that need to be answered to help you come up with a competitive product that will be in sufficient demand.The questions that must be answered prior to embarking on a Home Automation project should not be too much different from those one must answer before starting any other kind of business technology project:
- Is the business idea technically possible to implement?
- What is the target audience of the business idea?
- What is the benefit of implementing the idea for the end user?
- How profitable can the business idea be for the vendor?
Define a Broad Enough Target Audience
Finding the correct and insightful answers to the above questions without a historical context related to Home Automation does not seem to be possible. So, let us see how things around the concept have been evolving since it came into being nearly two decades ago, and what is available technology-wise to help a newcomer get a leg up on the competition.
The first attempts to automate a household were made with the advent of microelectronics in the 1970's. Microchips made it possible to incorporate business logic into compact devices. Initially, the target audience for this emerging technology was identified as practically any family and household. Households were divided into two categories: wealthy ones that were presumably able and willing to spend $100,000 for what was seen as a novelty by many, and the mass market that consisted of households whose corresponding budgets ranged from $2,000 to $35,000.
Surprisingly, the high-end solutions that were geared toward the affluent side of town became a dead end for the Home Automation concept. Interestingly, many mass market-oriented vendors became a success. One of the first implementations became the X10 protocol which was released in 1975 by Pico Electronics. It is still widely used despite being encumbered with several disadvantages that include a high latency.
Thus, it is time-proven that Home Automation-related technology innovations geared toward the mass market have a much better chance of succeeding. It has also become clear that both viable and lasting technology solutions can be found.
Become Familiar With Other Vendors’ Products
The early stage in the development of Home Automation also identified the main areas of application for the technology:
- Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (climate control )
- Security (locks, intercoms, surveillance, panic buttons)
- Lighting (control of electric lights)
- Audio-visual (control of various audio and video sources, and players)
- Shading (control of curtains and shutters)
The above list was later expanded with smart grid, which covers a household’s communications with the outside world (Internet access, monitoring, and utility payments).
Regardless of their actual sub-niche, Home Automation vendors tried to bind their clients as tightly as possible to their specialized products. Excessive market segmentation and the consequent loss of revenue due to a smaller number of customers became a direct fall-out from this counter-productive trend. By the 1990's, Home Automation technology’s main commercialization strategy was standardization and convergence. Devices and protocols were rendered compatible and interoperable in order to be able to cover all or most of the existing market. The developed standards remained proprietary, thus ensuring the required level of competition. As a response to licensed technology, the 2000's saw the advent of open standards, (UPnP, 6loWPAN, TR-069) which did not require that a license be purchased, and thus, facilitated faster development and commercialization of technology innovations.
Thus, a successful Home Automation technology solution must be based on a widely used and interoperable industry standard: vendor-locking your customers will be a gross mistake.
Make the Best of What Already Exists
Technologically, the Home Automation concept consists of three main components:
- Sensors to measure environmental data
- Actuators to execute actions
- A control system to manage the business logic based on sensor-provided data.
Sensors and actuators of any type are presently readily available, and the main task is ensuring the communication between the various components using a network protocol.
A typical network protocol comprises the following main layers:
- A physical layer(declaring the medium of data transmission).
- A network layer
- An Application layer
If a standard is more advanced, it will describe more layers, thus making it more convenient for the development of network systems. Early Home Automation standards declared only the usage of the physical/network layer by a single medium. Later standards were influenced by other general-purpose protocols, such as TCP/IP, and they are more versatile.
The following table illustrates the characteristics and differences between the different protocols.
Powerline, wireless twisted pair, IR
agnostic, usually TCP/IP networks
20 bps over powerline
9600 bps over powerline
depends on physical layer
not enabled by default
In addition to the above full-fledged standards, there exist several extensions and adapters for some of them created by different special interest groups. These groups strive to bring down the costs of system-on-chip controllers and Internet availability required to manage and replay the application layer of the corresponding protocols. Among the above public initiatives are the following:
1) XMPP (IETF standard). This standard is designed to give home devices direct IP access to the control servers. As the authors of the standard have put it, they are “aiming to make communication machine to people and machine to machine interoperable”.
2) The Broadband Forum TR-069 standard. The standard provides several extensions for proxying both low-level protocols to the TR-069 Management server, and work-in-progress for the direct management of the Internet of Things.
3) 6LoWPAN (IPv6 over Low power Wireless Personal Area Networks). This standard is an initiative by the IETF interest group to enable IP networking for low-power radio communication applications. These applications need wireless Internet connectivity at lower data rates to be able to work with devices that have a very limited form factor, i.e. smart grid devices.
4) The 5Gen 3GPP communication protocol (mobile networks). This protocol is in early stages of development, but its goal is described as providing power-efficient and stable access to any microcontroller.
Be Aware of Existing Problems
The problem of system security in Home Automation is, undoubtedly, one of the most frequently occurring and least properly taken care of.
Since Home Automation closely intertwines with its users’ everyday lives, and its users are not always familiar with the basics of IT, the consequences of any possible security flaws may be quite grave. These security concerns may include botnets, targeted blackmail, privacy being compromised, theft of financial data, and more.
Recent security research has shown that many home Internet devices are exposed to non-authenticated access from the Internet. Smart grid devices expose home statistics, and some systems do not require a password be entered to gain access to their configuration pages. These and similar issues should be carefully researched and knowledgably taken care of by interested technology vendors. Also, during any development project, particular attention must be paid to system security for non-experienced users.
Since most home solutions still do require some IT competence from their users, it would be more prudent to focus on developing plug-and-play protocols and applications. Moreover, the purpose of any Home Automation solution must be clearly visible to its target audience.
One should also bear it in mind that there is a true war of standards raging in the Home Automation business domain. Irrespective of their selected sub-niche, any technology vendor engaging in a development project in this area should consider implementing several specialized standards. These standards may include: KNX, Z-Wave, Zigbee, as well as several general-purpose standards, such as UPnP and Zeroconf.
Also, it may be a great market opportunity to develop a bridge between two different standards in order to upgrade the existing networks with new features provided by more up-to-date standards.
In any event, in order to minimize the cost of market entry, it is better to use open standards.
An last, but not least, the price your solution’s main components should not exceed that of other home appliances, otherwise marketing it profitably may prove to be extremely problematic.
The views and opinions expressed in this article do not constitute an endorsement of, or advice to use/purchase, or not to use/purchase any software technology product. These views and opinions are provided solely for information purposes, and interested readers should also be reliant on other competent opinions.