What is home automation

This blog is an introduction to the world of home automation, a technology that has now made the smart home a reality

A key component of the Internet of Things (IoT), home automation is only going to get bigger and better. We tell you how this phenomenon has gone way beyond washing machines and dishwashers.

A home that makes use of smart devices like smart cameras, smart washing machines, and smart temperature controllers.

Oct 29, 2019    By Team YoungWonks *

Home automation - think washing machines and dishwashers - is not exactly a new phenomenon, yet it is a world that has been relevant as ever. It is a subject that continues to hog our attention as the world of  household appliances continues to expand and smart homes become a reality. 

So what then is home automation in today’s day and age? And what is a smart home? This blog delves into the world of home automation and aims to explain what it is about and all that it entails. If you are looking for a simple quick read that will break down this rather complex concept, you are reading the right blog. 


What is Home Automation?

Home automation involves making devices that facilitate automation for a home. A home equipped/ fitted with these devices is in turn called a smart home or smart house. A home automation system today goes way beyond household appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers. It typically controls lighting, climate, entertainment systems, in addition to the household devices. It could also include home security such as access control and alarm systems. 

When connected with the Internet, home devices form an important part of the Internet of Things (IoT). A home automation system basically links the controlled devices to a central hub, also called a gateway. The system has a user interface that operates either on wall-mounted terminals, tablet or desktop computers, or even a mobile phone application, or  web interface, that can be accessed through the Internet.  

Interestingly, there are said to be three generations of home automation:

1. There’s the First Generation, which includes wireless technology with proxy servers, for instance ZigBee automation. 

2. Second Generation, where electrical devices are controlled by AI (Artificial Intelligence). For example, Amazon Echo or Google Home.  

3. And the Third Generation, which refers to robot buddies/ assistants who will not only assist humans but do so by actually interacting with them. Some examples would be Robot Rovio, Roomba etc. 


A Brief History of Home Automation

The idea behind home automation was the creation and use of appliances that would automate household tasks, which means that home automation devices are essentially labor-saving machines. The early wave of home automation gave way to a slew of appliances that were invented in the 1800s and 1900s; these include sewing machines (1804), dishwashers (1850), water heaters (1889), washing machines (1904), refrigerators (1913) and so on.  

But it was in 1975 that the first general purpose home automation network technology, X10, was developed. Built by Pico Electronics of Glenrothes, Scotland, it allowed remote control of home devices and appliances. A communication protocol for electronic devices, it mainly uses electric power transmission wiring for signalling and control; the signals here include brief radio frequency bursts of digital data. By 1978, X10 products included a 16 channel command console, a lamp module, and an appliance module. Soon after came the wall switch module and the first X10 timer. Thus it was the first general purpose home automation network technology and continues to be the most widely available mainly due to millions of units in use worldwide, and inexpensive availability of new components. 

It is also important to note here that the field of home automation is also referred to domotics, because the word “domotics” is made up of the Latin word for a home (domus) and the word robotics. 


Key Concepts in Home Automation

To understand how home automation works, let’s look at some of the key concepts that together form the crux of a home automation system: 

1. Automation 

Not surprisingly, automation is one of the two main characteristics of home automation. Automation refers to the ability to program and schedule events for the appliances looped in on the network. The programming would include timed commands, such as turning lights on and off at specific times in a day. It can also cover non-scheduled events, for e.g. switching on all the lights at home when the security system alarm is activated. 

Once you start to understand the possibilities of home automation scheduling, you can come up with any number of useful and creative solutions to make your life better. Is a particular window letting in too much light? You can now connect your motorized blinds to the home automation system by plugging it into a “smart” outlet and programming it to close at noon each day. Do you have someone come by at the same time each day to drop off a delivery? You can now program your home automation system to unlock the front door for the delivery person, and lock it up again when he/ she has left.

  2. Remote Control 

Another main feature of home automation is remote monitoring and access. While some degree of one-way remote monitoring has been going on for some time, it’s only since the advent and popularity of smartphones and tablets that we are now able to link up to our home networks even when we’re away. With the right home automation system, we can now use any Internet-connected device to track and control the system and the devices connected to it.

No doubt it’s the remote control that’s been the biggest takeaway of the home automation system. Apart from arming and disarming the home security system, we can now reprogram the scheduling, lock and unlock doors, reset the thermostat and adjust the lights all just a click away. We could anywhere in the world and yet be in control of our home thanks to our smartphones. And with manufacturers coming up with more “smart” devices (we already have “smart” TV, washing machine, refrigerator, thermostat, coffee maker), the possibilities for home automation are virtually limitless.

3. Internet-enabled Home Automation Components 

What are the parts of a typical home automation system? Now anything that can be connected to a network can be automated and controlled remotely. But more often than not, home automation involves connecting rather simple binary devices. This refers to the on and off devices such as lights, power outlets, electronic locks and even security sensors. 

Now such a home automation becomes truly smart when these devices are Internet-enabled. Typically, the control unit is the mobile phone or the home computer, for which many of the earlier home automation systems were designed. 

This means that merely having Internet-enabled automated devices that can be controlled remotely isn’t enough; what is also needed is for them to be integrated into a common network. 


Applications of Home Automation 

With rampant advances in technology - especially with the rise of AI and the resulting virtual assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant - it is not surprising to see that there are numerous applications of home automation today. Here are some of the popular applications:

1. Lighting control system: This refers to a smart network that runs on communication between various lighting system inputs and outputs, using one or more central computing devices. 

2. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC): Here one has remote control of all home energy monitors over the internet. 

3. Appliance control and integration: This is where the appliance performance can be run with a smart grid and smart meter. For instance, harnessing a solar panel to operate washing machines. 

4. Occupancy-aware control system: This is where smart meters and environmental sensors such as CO2 sensors are integrated with the home automation system so as to detect the occupancy of the home and accordingly, use activate automatic responses for energy efficiency and building comfort applications. 

5. Leak detection system: This is when the system is integrated with smoke and CO detectors which then trigger an alarm to ensure the safety of residents. 

6. Home robots and security: This refers to a household security system that is combined with a home automation system and thus offers additional services such as remote surveillance of security cameras over the Internet, or access control and central locking of all perimeter doors and windows. 

7. Home automation for babies, elderly, differently abled and pets: This would include tracking the movements of babies, elderly, differently abled and pets at home and controlling access to them.

8. Smart kitchen and connected cooking: Thanks to the rise of voice control devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home which are in turn powered by virtual assistants running on the Internet, one can now manage a host of other smart devices such as smart coffee machines, smart ovens, smart fridges and even smart multi cookers.

9. Air quality control: A popular example of a home automation system being used for this is that of the Air Quality Egg. An open source hardware IoT platform and hobbyist device, it is used by people at home to monitor the air quality and pollution levels in the city and create a pollution map. 


Advantages and Disadvantages of Home Automation

Here are some of the key advantages of home automation:

a. Energy Efficiency

Home automation systems are typically very energy efficient. Thanks to automated thermostats, one can pre-program temperatures based on the time of day and the day of the week. And some can even adjust to our behaviors, learning and adapting to our temperature choices without us even feeding it a pre-selected schedule. Similarly, traditional or behavior-based automation can also be applied to all gadgets that can be remotely controlled – be it sprinkler systems or coffee makers. Of course, actual energy savings in the end depend on the type of device we select and its automation capabilities. But on average, product manufacturers claim that the systems can help consumers save anywhere between 10 to 15 percent off of their heating and cooling bills. 

b. Security 

Remote monitoring is another big win scored by home automation systems. Indeed, we can put our minds at ease when we are away from the house and what’s more, now with remote dashboards, lights and lamps can be turned on and off, and automated blinds can be raised and lowered. These capabilities – combined with automated security systems – can help us reduce the chances of break-ins: we will be alerted immediately if something untoward happens. 

c. Convenience 

Convenience is also a key selling point of home automation appliances. After all, they do help us do away with small tasks such as turning the lights off before going to bed or changing the thermostat when you wake up in the morning. Many systems today have with remote dashboard capabilities, so forgetting to turn off say, a coffee pot before leaving home is exactly the kind of thing that will no longer need us to rush back home. All we’d have to do is open the dashboard on a smart device or computer, and turn the coffee pot off in a matter of seconds. 


Similarly, there are quite a few disadvantages too. Here we look at them:

a. Installation 

Depending on how complex the system is, installing a home automation device can be quite a task for the homeowner. Whether you do it yourself or hire an outside contractor, it is going to take up your money and time. 

b. Complex Technology 

Automating things may have its own appeal, but let’s face it: the good old-fashioned flip of the switch is a lot simpler than using your smartphone to turn lights on and off. The fact of the matter is that home automation is a complex thing and will need a certain upkeep. There’s also the question of how much you’d want to depend on this technology. Relying too much on this technology can’t be that good either. So it’s important to think about how much home automation you’d want in your house. 

c. System Compatibility 

Controlling all aspects of home automation from one centralized platform is ideal and certainly most convenient, but not all systems are always compatible with one another. Which means achieving this compatibility is yet another task the homeowner is faced with. Take for instance, an automated home security system. Now this system could need you to log in to one location to manage settings, while your smart thermostat may require you to log in to another platform to turn the air conditioner on and off. Now here, it’s undeniable that in order to truly enjoy the convenience of home automation, one will need to invest in a centralized platform technology that will in turn help one control all systems and devices from one location. 

d. Cost 

Home automation systems have become a lot more affordable in the past few years, but there’s still a considerable cost involved when it comes to purchasing, installing and maintaining the automated device. 


Home Automation Today and in the Future 

Home automation is a big market across the world today, particularly in the US. According to ABI Research, 1.5 million home automation systems were installed in the US by the year 2012. And according to Transparency Market Research (TMR), the global home automation market is expected to get only more competitive from 2018 to 2026. This is mainly thanks to the presence and rise of multiple players who are making continuous efforts so as to better the product quality through increasing technological and product development, plus launches of new technically advanced products due to new strategic alliances and collaborations. 

What’s more, in the future, home automation will also be increasingly standardized so as to allow us to exploit all additional possibilities. This will allow different smart devices at home to be easily connected to each other via a common network. 

*Contributors: Written by: Vidya Prabhu Photos by: Leonel Cruz

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