Enhancing home security

Home automation is expanding, with many systems based on existing security packages. Now, in addition to ensuring that windows and doors are locked, users can save electricity, check on elderly parents, or open the door by using remote control.

Your daughter has forgotten her key and she’s sitting outside the front door, phoning you on her cell phone. It’s getting dark and cold, and you are annoyed, because you have to decide whether you’re going to have to stop work and rush home in order to let her in, or whether you’re going to let her sit there and wait…That would teach her!

Or you could have a home automation system. A couple of clicks on the office computer, and the door is open! Happy child, to have such a thoughtful parent.

Home automation is going to take off, says Sam Lucero, Machine to Machine (M2M) connectivity specialist at ABI Research.  His estimate is that over a million managed home automation systems are going to be installed in North America in 2012, about three times as many as in 2008. The number will double again by 2014.

Many of these systems, says Lucero, will be based on existing security packages, with 24/7 monitoring centers to call emergency services and coordinate assistance. “Many of the homes which want a custom-designed home control system already have security,” he points out. “The big security system providers are offering home control and monitoring as an enhancement of basic security.”

Some of the big operators use their own closed communications systems but there are good reasons for going down other roads, especially with the collapse of the construction market due to the economic slow-down.  As Jim Gist, vice president commercial development at home control provider Control4, says, “Wireless communication has allowed dealers to install systems in existing homes.”

Control4 has opted for the open-source communications protocol ZigBee, the other major competitor in the home control market.  Both Z-wave and ZigBee are wireless mesh networks which allow appliances to interact with each other. Each system has an “alliance” made up of companies which have licensed their protocols so that their devices work with all others from the same family.

Both have to be bridged through a protocol gateway to other communication systems such as WiFi or Ethernet. This can be viewed as a way of strengthening security and reliability, since the gateway can insure that rogue devices are unable to disrupt or attack the main system.

Communications are increasingly important.  Even proprietary security systems are facing increasing demand from customers, who want to be told immediately what is happening via the internet or mobile phone. Signals from the devices at home have to be translated into more widely accepted formats, and that is leading to an interest in the development of small-size IP stacks suitable for use by simple devices such as locks or light-switches, allowing end-to-end IP architecture. One group working on that is the IP for Smart Objects (IPSO) alliance.

But for now Z-wave and ZigBee have the field largely to themselves. Sam Lucero notes, “Traditional companies have their own radio for core security functionality, but even they will add gateways to Z-wave and ZigBee to expand their systems with home control functionality.” Niels Tybo Johansen, CTO of Zensys – now part of Sigma Designs – points to the fact that companies don’t have to build their own products but can draw on the existing market.

And there is already a wide range: you can turn on your favorite music and dim the lights as you come home with your date, or save electricity by turning off the lights if no-one has been in the room for five minutes. The system can send you a text message if your elderly parents haven’t opened the fridge door by 10 am, or let you see who’s coming up the front path when you’re in your bedroom, offering you a valuable feeling of security.

But, as Johansen says, “It’s a softer level than the big security companies offer.”  For one thing, there’s no liability involved. The customer may have control, but he may be away from his desk and have turned his mobile off. Who’s in control then? 

Nevertheless, many people are happy with the level of security provided, especially since the cost of full-scale protection is considerably higher. And new commercial developments are making the technology even more attractive.  For one thing, the entry of utility companies and telecom and broadband providers into the market has provided a route for the public to find out about the technology in the first place. Utility companies are linking home control to their new smart metering, while telecom and broadband providers are coming in via the links to phone and internet.

“They can develop packages which are easily understood and can educate their customers about the benefits,” says Lucero. “And their main motive is to retain customer loyalty.”  Now, he believes, the task is for the utilities and providers to work out exactly what they should offer and how they should present it. In this, they are being supported by the industry, which sees subscriber-based services as an important way into the market.

Johansen points out that wireless, rather than hard-wired systems, are particularly advantageous in the subscription market: “Customers often get the hardware free and pay a monthly subscription,” he says. “It’s important that installation is low-cost.”

While home automation started out with the automation of the living room, with control of home entertainment, blinds, lighting and heating, Gist considers that security can be an important argument for the future: “IP cameras monitoring the home, one-touch opening and closing of the windows and doors, control and notification from anywhere in the world – they all provide an added level of confidence,” he says. “Home automation is moving out of the living room and into the rest of the house.”

By Michael Lawton

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