Evolving Technology

The technology being used in home automation has progressed significantly in recent years. This has been driven by the introduction of other consumer products, especially tablets, and other similar devices. There has also been an explosion in the availability of cheaper, small, and higher performing, off-the-shelf ZigBee and Z-Wave devices.

Hub Processors

One of the main constraints on the design of the existing systems was the limited capability of the hub processor. This was due to several factors, including cost, size, power consumption, and lack of availability.

The introduction of tablets, smart TVs, and other similar products, has driven up the availability of much higher powered processors, and driven down their prices. This advance in technology has been exploited by companies, such as Raspberry, with their introduction of low cost single card computers.

These single card computers have a processing capability that would have been quite acceptable for laptop and desktop computers only a relatively short time ago. They are also able to support the most modern, and capable, professional software languages.

We recommend the use of the Raspberry Pi 3B for the hub. Over 20 million Raspberry Pi single card computers have been sold worldwide, some 40% of which are 3Bs. Many other manufacturers have now entered this market, so choice is increasing, as is performance, and prices are falling.

Off-the-shelf Hardware

More generally, home automation technology is advancing at a very high rate, and the shape of the home automation market is changing.

The technology is also moving away from suppliers that offer complete, own-badged, systems, and towards more standardized off-the-shelf hardware. This includes the individual devices, such as motion and contact sensors, the hub processor, and the network adapters.

The hub can be based on a single card computer with one or more USB network adapters connected to it. This may not be an aesthetically pleasing solution, but all of the devices are readily available, and they provide the lowest cost and most flexible solution.

The current system suppliers have tended to outsource the manufacture, and possibly the design, of the electronics. These subcontractors are now offering their own branded range of both systems and devices.

In many respects, these companies have been the beneficiaries of the development of the home automation market in recent years. The consumer has also benefited through the availability of many more, and much cheaper, individual devices, and network adapters.

Product Reliability

Product reliability is another major consideration. All electronic products that are manufactured in large volumes use automated production methods. The reliability of these products increases as the production volume increases.

Any consumer electronic product that is manufactured in large volumes has to be very reliable, because the cost of repairing or replacing under warranty would otherwise be prohibitive. With over 20 million devices sold worldwide, the Raspberry Pi falls into this category, as do many of the newer devices being sold into the home automation market.

In contrast, many of the proprietary hubs in use today, and their networked devices, have only been manufactured in relatively small volumes, and are intrinsically less reliable than their larger volume counterparts.

Client / Server Relationships

The anticipated more localized, and self-contained approach to home automation, with much less reliance being placed on cloud services, is typical of the continuing changes that occur over time in any client / server relationship.

In addition to performance and usability, the relative performance and cost of the client, the server, and the interconnecting data transmission are the main determining factors in any computer system.

To date, most of the hubs in home automation systems have been relatively dumb clients, with the processing handled on a cloud based server.

Local hub processing has now become much cheaper, and much more powerful. This enables the cloud processing to be largely eliminated, and removes any dependency on an unreliable Internet connection. The local processing also improves the performance of the system significantly.

The availability of high performance hub processors largely removes the client / server relationship. The role of the server becomes both minor, and subservient to the hub. Other servers, such as Alexa’s, will play a greater role in future, but still under the control of the hub.

Problems & Solutions

“What do you expect from an embryonic technology?”

This was one user’s recent response on a forum to another user complaining about having difficulties with their home automation system.

It sums up the current situation. Many people, quite reasonably, expect these system to just work, as advertised. This is encouraged by suppliers that gloss over the problems that can arise.

Every installation is different, so some people are lucky, and don’t have any problems. Others are not so lucky. Some people are prepared to spend time overcoming the limitations of these systems, but they are only a small proportion of the potential user base.

The main problems with these systems, and their solutions can be summarized as follows.

1. As the system relies totally on a cloud based service, the user has to rely on a cellular connection and an Internet connection between their mobile phone and this service. Lack of cellular coverage means that this connection cannot be guaranteed. This connection is needed even when the user is at home. Transfer the control system to the hub in its entirety, and have a local connection to a mobile phone in the home. A cellular connection is still needed for remote access, but people spend 70% of their time at home, and only use their App occasionally when away from home.
2. As the system relies totally on a cloud based service, the user has to rely on their home internet connection to access this service. Many home internet connections are unreliable and slow, which interferes with the operation of the system. This connection is needed even when the user is at home. Transfer the control system to the hub in its entirety, and have a local connection to a mobile phone in the home. This eliminates this connection problem completely.
3. The system relies on radio signals to communicate between the hub and the individual devices, and between devices, all of which is susceptible to interference and signal attenuation. Explain the nature of the system to the user. Provide the user with easy to understand signal status information, and provide onscreen advice on correcting any issues.
4. Many of the devices are battery powered, and the battery may fall below its operating voltage without the user being aware. Explain the nature of the system to the user. Provide the user with easy to understand battery status information, and onscreen advice on replacing batteries.
5. Users are confused by the complexities of settings up and operating the system. Make the installation, setup, everyday operation and other aspects as simple and intuitive to use as possible.

Self-monitoring, fault diagnosis, user reporting, and the overall control of the system are all greatly enhanced when the control system software runs on the hub.