Network Integration Plays Key Role in Home Automation

Network Integration Plays Key Role in Home Automation

By Teresa Hansen, Managing Editor

In the late 1960s, the Jetson family lived in a world where home automation was the norm, flying vehicles provided transportation and the maid was a robot named Rosie. Even though we`ve yet to find a replacement for automobiles and robots still can`t perform many human tasks, home automation is becoming a reality. Many of the nation`s affluent are already enjoying automated homes, and affordable home automation is expected to become a part of many Americans` daily lives in the not too distant future.

Many believe electric utilities are positioned as well, or better, than other industries to take advantage of this new home automation market. According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the residential sector provides 40 percent of the electric power industry`s annual revenue. Some say utilities that gain the edge now in serving residential customers could see long-term benefits. However, utilities, as well as manufacturers, understand that home automation will not make its way into the mass market unless it is made affordable and convenient for consumers. Some technological challenges must be addressed before true automation becomes a part of consumers` everyday lives. Possibly one of the biggest technological hurdles will be developing a way to integrate existing and future home services into one manageable network.

Challenges

Recently, a team of top scientists and engineers at Battelle, a Columbus, Ohio-based research and development organization, compiled a list of the 10 most important technological challenges facing the industry over the next decade. One of the challenges identified was convergence of technology in the home. According to the team, home life has historically been separated from work and shopping, but in the next 10 years all that will change. The home will become a place where private and public lives converge. People`s work lives and home lives will be more efficient–and more closely linked, the study predicts. Increasingly, the home will be a place to work, shop, get an education and enjoy entertainment.

The team believes the biggest technological change occurring in people`s personal lives will be the convergence of telecommunications, entertainment, networking, education information access and computing power into the home. “The home environment is perhaps the center of the greatest opportunities for consumer products in the next 10 years,” said William Burke, Battelle`s Consumer Products Group vice president. “The challenges involve new approaches to managing the total home environment with new products that will give residents better, simpler and more personalized service.”

While the concept sounds achievable, utilities could be in for some rough sailing if they choose the wrong course. Tricia Parks, president of Parks Associates, a Dallas-based market research and consulting firm that studies residential technologies and services, warns that utilities must avoid trying to safeguard their accounts by offering their customers new services over external and in-home networked systems, while simultaneously making those networks virtually inaccessible to other, encroaching utilities. This solution, while offering certain short-term benefits, has negative long-term consequences. “Utilities must avoid being boxed in by technology that doesn`t meet future needs or can`t communicate with other systems,” Parks said. By choosing proprietary systems, Parks warns, a utility may wind up preventing itself from integrating with future business partners, ventures and acquisitions. Parks believes that two-way interactivity and open systems are essential for utilities to weather the coming storm.

Residential Gateway

Most experts believe the development of some sort of residential gateway is a necessity. Parks Associates and the Continental Automated Buildings Association define a residential gateway as a single device capable of receiving and distributing multiple services from multiple sources. Developing this standard gateway will not be an easy task. As Figure 1 illustrates, today`s residential customer`s home is filled with varying equipment and services. For example, the customer may be receiving telephone service through twisted pair, cable TV via coax cable, electricity through power lines, and possibly some sort of security or energy management service via radio frequency (RF) transmission. A gateway that can integrate all these different signals will be complex. Adding to the complexity is the fact that some signals received in the home are analog, some are digital and some are both analog and digital. To be successful, a gateway must not only be able to integrate this multi-network, multi-service information, its complexity must be hidden from consumers. The device must be simple enough for the average homeowner or apartment dweller to operate.

Advantages for Everyone

As difficult as the gateway`s development may be, the effort is expected to be worthwhile. According to Parks, whatever form the residential gateway takes, the creation of a standard interface will offer advantages for all concerned.

For the manufacturers, the elimination of redundancy and the standardization of the interface should help lower production costs and ensure interoperability with other companies` equipment.

For the service providers, a gateway`s ability to route services from multiple networks eliminates the worry that incompatible hardware will block the entry of the provider`s offerings; in addition, the gateway can serve as a digital-to-analog converter, thus providing a bridge to the day when all home services are digital.

For the end users, the gateway hides the interacting services` true complexity and gives the user a simple interface from which to control all services entering his or her home. If a modular design is used, the owner is also protected from obsolescence.

Initiatives have been formed over the past few years to develop a residential gateway standard or protocol. As Figure 2 illustrates, energy service companies (electric utilities included), along with telephone utilities, have been driving the residential gateway`s development. Although one particular standard has not been singled out to serve the home automation industry, a few key standards have emerged.

X-10

Currently, a standard developed by X-10 USA has the most widespread use, and according to the manufacturer, is already in more than 4 million homes. However, X-10 is often viewed as an old technology (originally introduced in 1978). It is slow and sometimes vulnerable to failures, and most importantly, it is primarily designed for lighting and limited to six types of controls: ON, OFF, DIM, BRIGHT, ALL LIGHTS ON and ALL UNITS OFF.

Today, X-10 is both a standard and a manufacturer. X-10 produces its own branded products and manufactures compatible products for other companies. A wide range of products use X-10 technology, including many types of light switches, remote controls, security systems, television and computer interfaces, and telephone responders. The technology is inexpensive (light switches retail for $10 to $13 and remote controls start around $15), but its limited capabilities have prompted the development of other, more robust technologies.

CEBus

In 1984, Electronics Industry Association members saw the need for capabilities beyond those of X-10. Engineers representing companies from around the world began meeting and developing a proposed standard called Consumer Electronic Bus (CEBus). CEBus is an open-architecture set of specification documents which define protocols for how to make products communicate through power-line wires, low-voltage twisted pairs, coax, infrared, RF and fiber optics. Anyone, anywhere can get a copy of the plans and develop products that work with the CEBus standard.

CEBus transmissions are based upon data strings or packets, varying in length, depending upon how much data is included. Some packets can be hundreds of bits long. The minimum packet size is 64 bits, which at an average rate of 7,500 bits per second will take about 1/117th of a second to be transmitted. The standard involves device addresses that are set in hardware at the factory and includes 4 billion possibilities.

Currently, all CEBus hardware, language and protocol is available on a chip produced by Intellon Corp., Ocala, Fla. Intellon sells the chip to other manufacturers for use in their products. A CEBus Industry Council was recently formed to market the standard. Microsoft, IBM, Honeywell, Intel, Pacific Gas & Electric, Leviton and Lucent Technologies are among the sponsors.

LonWorks

Another proposed home automation standard is LonWorks. LonWorks is being developed and marketed by Echelon Corp., which was founded in 1990 by one of Apple Computer`s principle founders. Other large owners include Motorola and Detroit Edison. LonWorks` primary focus is a “Neuron” chip which includes all communications hardware and protocol for products to communicate in a network environment. The chip is being manufactured under license by Motorola and Toshiba, and can be installed in any consumer product. It communicates through power-line wires, low-voltage twisted pairs, coax, infrared, RF and fiber optics.

LonWorks transmissions are also based upon data strings or packets that also vary in length, depending on how much data is included. The minimum packet size and transmission rates are about the same as CEBus. The device addresses can be set in hardware at the factory or, unlike CEBus, they can be set by the installer. The addresses support up to 32,000 individual devices in a network. The LonWorks standard has been a key component of energy management systems for several years. According to Echelon, over 25 utilities worldwide are pursuing projects based on LonWorks networks. Numerous equipment manufacturers and system integrators are supporting these projects which include demand side management, meter reading, home automation, distribution automation, substation automation and generation plant control for residential, commercial and industrial customers. Echelon has pushed the formation of a group known as the LonMark Interoperability Association, made up of companies that are developing LonWorks products, systems integrators and end users. Group members include ABB Network Partner, BTE, Carrier, Honeywell, Legrand, Microsoft, Molex, Motorola, Olivetti, SIEBE and Square D Co.

Other Standards

Several other groups have also proposed U.S. standards. Although these groups are smaller than those mentioned above, they are still significant. Honeywell originally developed as a manufacturer of thermostats and HVAC control equipment and has been involved in commercial building automation for many years. The company has now entered the residential security business and began selling proprietary security systems and monitoring services through authorized dealers. In 1991, Honeywell added residential lighting controls to their offerings and began packaging its three systems into the Total Home package, which includes 10 points of lighting control, 10 security sensors and a three-zone HVAC control system. Consumers can add more controls as options. The Honeywell system presently uses X-10 for lighting controls, and its HVAC and security systems communicate by their own proprietary methods. Honeywell is involved with both CEBus and LonWorks, and claims it will adapt to either or both standards when they become widely accepted by consumers.

The National Association of Home Builders has developed a home control concept that has evolved into a commercial business known as Smart House. Smart House was originally proposed as a standard which included centralized intelligence and wiring and hardware for new homes. More recently, Smart House has begun to work with both CEBus and LonWorks to develop hardware and components for existing homes. It is still unclear which standards will dominate the home automation market and when those dominant standards will be selected. But, one thing is clear, standards are actively being developed and home automation is destined to become a reality for the nation`s consumers, putting us one step closer to the lifestyle imagined by the Jetsons` creators.

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Pictured here is one apartment in Chatelaine Park in Duluth, Ga. The apartment features interactive energy management, wireless cable television, intrusion alarm, Internet access and access to long-distance telephone service.

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