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Radically Increase Uptake of Smart-Home Tech with a Centralized Approach

March 14, 2019
Up to now, the progress in bringing automation into the domestic environment hasn’t really proved that inspiring. Could this finally be about to change?

With our everyday lives becoming ever more frantic, there are simply fewer hours in the day for doing household chores, with technology now expected to make up for the shortfall. As well as saving time, use of automated systems also offers the prospect of greatly enhancing the quality of life for both the elderly and the disabled. Environmental considerations must be considered, too, with smart homes allowing energy-consumption figures to be lowered and thereby curbing pollution levels.

Though it’s gained plenty of media attention, consumers actually haven’t been all that quick to embrace home automation. With a little bit of investigation, it soon becomes clear that a multitude of different reasons are why this technology, despite its seemingly strong appeal, hasn’t been as pervasive as was originally anticipated.

To begin with, things were held back for some time by the fact that the hardware used wasn’t really cost-effective enough. In addition, there was the inconvenience of having to install all of the cabling to connect everything up—with only a limited number of installers available who had the relevant knowledge to undertake such work.

Over time, the expense associated with the electronics hardware involved—the sensors, actuators, communication modules, and the like—has diminished, and today it’s no longer considered to be a serious constraint. The proliferation of wireless technology, in particular, has been pivotal. It’s enabled far greater convenience than would be possible with solely wireline-based system implementations.   

Now that many of the main technical and logistical challenges are no longer so daunting, the only remaining issue is integrating everything together. An effective method is now needed that enables the array of different constituent technologies found within a smart-home deployment to operate together in unison, rather than working in isolation. This has, to date, been more difficult to accomplish than you might think.

The disjointed, siloed way in which the global home-automation business has developed is the root cause of the problem. The vendors correspondingly attending to the lighting and heating sectors have created their own specific systems. These are often based on proprietary communication technologies that offer little or no opportunity for interoperability. Though this makes sense from a commercial standpoint, allowing them to protect their investment and retain market share, when you look at it from the customer’s point of view, it’s certainly very frustrating. 

The tactics of the leading vendors has made integration in home automation much more difficult to achieve. So far, it’s meant that installations have generally consisted of numerous isolated subsystems for heating, lighting, and security. Each of these relies on its own dedicated control mechanism. What users really want, however, is for their living space to be served by one single all-encompassing system that’s less complex and time-consuming to operate, and thereby provides a better overall user experience.

Building Better HMIs

We’re now in an era where, in the vast majority of cases, the most valued part of an electronic design relates directly the user experience that’s derived. This has mainly been driven by the ongoing advances made in the portable electronics sector, with each new smartphone generation looking to push things further. What it also means, though, is that the human-machine interfaces (HMIs) now being built into all other items of equipment, not just those in the consumer space, need to be as sophisticated as possible and intuitive to operate.

If every subsystem in a home automation deployment depends on a separate control mechanism, with its own distinctive look and feel, and no real consistency between them (some likely to be more refined than others), then the whole principle of delivering an enjoyable user experience is completely lost. Having to navigate through each respective HMI is likely to be confusing for the user and could become increasingly annoying over time.

As well as the lack of HMI integration, because each subsystem is isolated from the others, the potential is lost in terms of synchronizing the functions from them together—even though there are likely to be a multitude of occasions when this would be extremely advantageous.   

Converging everything onto a comprehensive HMI, rather than have individual ones for each subsystem, is the direction home automation must take. The challenge is bridging the communication protocols used by all of the different subsystems together and creating a platform that enables interoperability. An example of this approach is Bridgetek’s PanL, which is designed to handle a plethora of different relevant communication standards to better coordinate direct control of lighting, heating, ventilation, and security functions.

From the user’s perspective, the benefits are that it’s no longer necessary to have separate apps or control units for each subsystem. Instead, everything can be handled instinctively via one touch-enabled HMI. There’s also the prospect, for greater convenience, to utilize voice-activated control. Centralizing the system in this way also enables the synchronization of different activities. For example, it might be that the user wants the lighting and heating to be turned on concurrently, or for the security system to boot up as soon as the lights are turned off for the night.

PanL Hub

The PanL Hub implements a centralized control system that enables an elevated degree of inter-functional coordination (Fig. 1). Through it, a broad range of different wireless and wireline connectivity options can be supported. These include Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n), Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Z-Wave, Zigbee, RS485, and Ethernet (with PoE functionality encompassed), as well as vendors’ proprietary protocols (such as DALI and Philips Hue).

1. Shown is a home-automation system based on PanL technology developed by Bridgetek.

There are further items of hardware that complement the PanL Hub. For instance, it includes the PanL DALI1 controllers (for taking care of the lighting) and the PanL RELAY controllers (which can be programmed to switch on/off ac or dc loads, such as motors to close/open curtains, climate control fans, or magnetic actuators for locking/unlocking doors).

The HMI aspect is dealt with using either the compact 3.5-in. 320- × 480-pixel resolution PanL35 display units or the larger format 7-in. 800- × 480-pixel resolution PanL70 units. These incorporate capacitive touchscreens that support 5-point multi-touch operation, and have strong graphical and audio capabilities. Integrating Amazon Voice Service into the system adds another dimension to the user experience. It means that home-automation demands can directed through the Alexa-controlled Echo smart speaker.

Expanding the Scope Beyond Smart Homes

There are other areas outside the home where deploying centralized HMI systems of this kind could show considerable worth. Openings in relation to healthcare, retail, and hospitality, as well as for utilities and agriculture, are already emerging.

Implementation within office buildings is another possibility. PanL Room Manager (Fig. 2) is an intelligent meeting-room booking system that, like the home-automation system previously outlined, consists of a PanL Hub with a collection of PanL70 PLUS HMI units (each featuring built-in RFID transceivers) connected to it. An HMI unit is positioned outside each of the meeting rooms and, by referring to these, company employees can find out the status of a meeting room and check availability for particular times. They can also access the full meeting schedule and determine who is responsible for hosting specific meetings.

2. Schematic of the PanL Room Manager solution.

Using this system, new meetings can be arranged or the details of existing ones amended (by someone with the appropriate authorization to do so). The RFID technology embedded into each HMI unit ensures that only invited members of staff are able to enter the room using their identity badges. The PanL Room Manager’s software interfaces with Microsoft Outlook through Microsoft Exchange and Office 365 software packages. Thus, users can book a meeting room via their calendar on a desktop or handheld device.

The full-scale roll-out of smart-home technology has taken far longer to happen than anyone ever anticipated it would. The fault doesn’t really fall to the constituent technology, though. Instead the biggest contributor to this delay has been a widespread lack of operability, which vendors have done little to alleviate up to this point.

By relying on hardware that can bridge all of the different communication protocols and deliver a single, easy to operate HMI, the prevalence of home-automation systems could escalate significantly. Furthermore, this could have a knock effect in other industry sectors where higher degrees of automation are destined to be equally applicable.

Gordon Lunn is Technical Marketing Manager at Bridgetek.

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