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Secure and Comfortable Living

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Home automation considered a niche segment, few years back is getting smarter and affordable. Initial technologies focused on security and utility management, but newer all-in-one systems give homeowner real-time control over almost all the systems in the house while at home or away. The latest in line are Smartphone Apps and Domotics – that is home robots.

In India, the growth of home automation is being driven by the increasing awareness of smart living and the growing affordability of home smart home products. Other reasons include availability of high-speed broadband connections, developments in home networking and advancements in 3G communications technologies. Also, the standard-based technologies that can be integrated into existing communications/utility infrastructure of modern homes has resulted in eliminating the need for bulky hardware and cabling, thereby lowering the cost. “The security concerns and awareness for energy efficient systems are the strong drivers for home automation among mid-income home buyers. Security systems like video door phone, cameras & remote door mechanisms and automated control of lighting & air-conditioning for energy saving have contributed to the rising trend of home automation in Indian cities.” says, New Delhi architect, Rajinder Srivastava.

Till now, the commonly used automation was for lighting and air-conditioning to save energy. It ranged from simple installations as straightforward as turning on the lights and AC when a person enters the room to advanced installations that can sense not only the presence of a person in the room but also set appropriate lighting and temperature. Other tasks could include reduced setting of the air-conditioning when the house is unoccupied, and restoring the normal setting when an occupant is about to return.

Today, the sophisticated systems can integrate control of domestic activities like houseplant and yard watering, pet feeding and care giving for the elderly and disabled. The new technologies can maintain an inventory of products, record their usage through bar code or an RFID tag and even automatically order replacements. For example, a furnace can send an alert message when it needs cleaning, or a refrigerator when it needs service. The home automation system could call the owner or an emergency number if an intruder is detected. Commenting on the trend, Vedant Oza, Owner of Smart Connect, providers of automation products and services says, “In India, the security automation products are the most popular in this segment. But, in the past few years, real estate developers have taken the home automation concept to mid-income projects, customizing it to suit the budgets of clients.”

The devices are connected through a home network controlled by a personal computer with remote access from the internet. A remote interface to home appliances provides control and monitoring on a smartphone or web browser. An example of remote monitoring is the triggering of a smoke detector in fire or smoke condition, causing all lights in the house to blink to alert any occupants of the house to the possible emergency. The system could also call the home owner on their mobile phone to alert them or call the fire department or alarm monitoring company.

System Components & Networks

Home automation system include sensors like motion detector, controllers like computers & tablets and actuators, such as motorized valves, switches and others. To interact with the system there is a specialized terminal or an application running on a smart phone or computer. Devices may communicate over a wired network or wirelessly using one or more protocols.

The networks can use control wiring, radio frequency (RF) signals or a combination of several methods. Control wiring is hardest to retrofit into an existing house. Protocol bridges translate information from one standard to another.

Power Line systems like X10 leverage the existing power lines of the home to transmit information to a common control interface. The Wired Systems use Cat 5 cables to communicate information, usually connected to a proprietary control system or a more open control center. Wireless Systems do not require cabling and integrate with Wi-Fi networks, so they can be integrated into existing home networks, including computing networks.

Network protocols X10 – It started out as a powerline-based system but eventually went wireless. It’s not known for great speed or communication between units and are more difficult to install.

UPB – It is a powerline-only communication protocol designed to use a higher voltage and put out a stronger signal than x10 but is again hard to install.

Insteon – This is a protocol designed to bridge the gap between powerline-based and wireless protocols. It’s also compatible with x10 devices.

Z-Wave – It is a wireless home automation protocol that runs on the 908.42MHz frequency band. One of the key features of Z-Wave is that it utilizes a “mesh network,” which essentially means that one Z-Wave product will pass the signal along to another until it reaches its intended destination. This relay system extends its range and it consumes less power.

ZigBee – This is an 802 wireless communication standard built by the IEEE. It also consumes a small amount of power and uses a mesh network structure to offer excellent range and speedy communication between devices.

Wi-Fi – Many manufacturers have begun making smart home devices that can connect with a wireless router. One key drawback is the interference and bandwidth issues depending on the number of Wi-Fi-connected gadgets. Wi-Fi also consumes a lot of power, so it’s not ideal for battery-based smart devices like doorbells and locks.

KNX – It is a standardized OSI-based network communications protocol designed to be independent of any particular hardware platform. A KNX device network can be controlled by anything from an 8-bit microcontroller to a PC according to the needs of a particular implementation.

BLE – BLE is short for Bluetooth Low Energy and it’s sometimes used in home automation, but not as the main protocol. It has a fairly limited range compared to other networking protocols.

Technology Adoption & Hindrances

Mobile devices like smartphones and tablet PCs have created innovative and affordable home automation systems. The convergence of these technologies has made installation and adoption of systems simpler and more cost effective. Advancements in wireless technologies such as Z-Wave and ZigBee are also enabling the production of cost-efficient solutions, making them affordable to average customers. Further, the increasing availability of peripheral components is fueling low-cost home automation. Some major players in the global home automation market include AMX Corporation, ABB Ltd., Control4, Crestron Electronics Inc., Honeywell International Inc., Lightolier Controls, Lutron Electronics Inc., Schneider Electric Ltd., Siemens AG, SmartHome Controls Ltd., Vantage Controls Inc, among others.

The biggest impediment to widespread adoption of home automation products is the price of high bandwidth which is an integral part of home automation systems. Deployment costs and labour are site-dependent and may represent a constraint until uniform packages are launched. The lack of proper service strategy including SLAs and pricing plans and standardization of home automation technologies with their seamless integration into existing home infrastructure are also some of these challenges. Mumbai interior designer Bhavna Lal adds, “The biggest problem in embracing smart home automation is the lack of seamless automation. One needs separate apps to control different smart devices which can get confusing for even most tech savvy. There are platforms available which allow users to connect and control all Smart Home devices with one app from the smartphone or Smart TV but they add to the cost. Thus, home automation in totality is still concept driven. What home owners are currently using are individual automation products like cameras, lighting controls and motorized curtains as per their specific needs.” Bangalore-based architect and builder Niranjan Das points out, “A lot of people are still not comfortable with the home automation concept and many find the learning curve too steep, especially elderly who find it difficult to operate.”

Domotics The recent introduction in home automation is the Domotics or Domestic Robots. It is an autonomous robot that is used for household chores. While most domestic robots are simplistic, some are connected to WiFi home networks or smart environments and are autonomous to a high degree.

In-home robots

Robotic vacuum cleaners clean floors with sweeping and wet mopping functions. Some use Swiffer or other disposable cleaning cloths to dry-sweep, or reusable microfiber cloths to wet-mop.Cat litter robots are automatic self-cleaning litter boxes that filter clumps out into a built-in waste receptacle that can be lined with an ordinary plastic bag.

Security robots which have a night-vision-capable wide-angle camera detects movements and intruders. It can patrol places and shoot video and send alerts via email or text message.

Outdoor robots

Robotic lawn mowers are one type of outdoor robot that cut grass on their own without the need for a driver. There are also automated pool cleaners that clean and maintain swimming pools autonomously by scrubbing in-ground pools from the floor to the waterline at pre-set intervals.

Window-washing robots commonly use two magnetic modules to navigate windows as it sprays cleaning solution onto microfiber pads to wash them. Gutter-cleaning robots can blast through debris, clogs, and sludge in gutters, and brush them clean.

Social robot

These robots are designed to provide company for elderly and less mobile people. Home-telepresence robots can let one communicate with people via its camera, speaker, and microphone as also let the user visit a distant location and explore it. These robots permit home owners to monitor elderly or patients at home and can also allow children who are homebound because of injuries, illnesses, or other physical challenges to attend school remotely.

 

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