The Next Big Thing

The market for home automation is poised for terrific growth. Integrated systems are increasingly becoming a part of the electrical contractor’s business. Since integrated control and communication systems are constantly evolving, the installation and maintenance of these systems will be an excellent source of revenue for contractors who can add those skills to their bag of tricks and become electrical/integrated systems contractors.

Video, audio and gaming systems connect with each other and the Internet. People can control lighting and temperature to enhance their home environment and save on energy costs. The smart grid adds two-way communication to the electricity grid to save homeowners money and make the utility’s job easier. Safety and security are a natural fit. These systems monitor and protect the home and alert residents and outside responders. The ability to remotely sense a person’s health status and send it over the Internet is a service that is just beginning to make its mark, and as the U.S. population ages, it will become more prevalent.

One of the biggest challenges is setting up a user interface through which your customer can view data about the condition of the environment and select the settings for his or her home systems, such as television, music and lighting. Typically, each system reports either wirelessly or by wired Ethernet to the interface, which can be a computer or television screen, a fixed or portable touchscreen, or a mobile device.

Peeking into the future
Some of the ideas that researchers are testing sound like science fiction, but I predict that many of them will become part of our daily lives in the not-too-distant future. After all, if 20 years ago, you described the role that the Internet and mobile communications now play, it would certainly have seemed like science fiction. What would it have meant to say that it is dangerous to text while driving?

The Aware Home Research Initiative, a laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is a research project housed in a three-story facility with an authentic home environment. Ongoing projects include TWIRLS, a thermostat designed to track someone’s location, then adjust his or her home temperature accordingly; GATSBII, a robot designed to help older adults with their chores; ECD, which displays energy consumption in different areas of the home and sets reasonable conservation goals; and ShareTable, which provides video conferencing through a tabletop surface. With the latter, children and adults who live apart can keep in touch by playing games, reading together and doing homework.

AmI and IoT
Ambient intelligence (AmI) and the Internet of things (IoT) are two fancy- sounding ideas discussed in corporate and university research centers. They’re attempts to develop software and devices that will make it much simpler for people to use technology. The goal of AmI is to develop means of controlling systems by using sensors, wireless communication, radio frequency identification (RFID) and global positioning systems (GPS), to observe people’s behavior and make automatic choices based on the patterns they detect. A simple version of this concept is the iTunes Genius application, which develops lists of music based on what’s in your digital music library and what you listen to most.

The idea of IoT is that systems and sensors will be able to wirelessly communicate with each other to build a self-adjusting network. One popular project imagines devices that are able to transport themselves using GPS—for example, self-guided robots moving about a home doing a variety of tasks more sophisticated than vacuum cleaning.

A typical scenario that the researchers are dreaming up goes like this: At 6:30 a.m. on Monday, the thermostat adjusts itself higher because Jane’s alarm clock is set to go off at 7, and the temperature sensors have taught the system that it takes about 30 minutes to warm up the house. The morning news is displayed on the bathroom video screen and transfers to the kitchen when Jane sits down for breakfast. Since all of the items she removes from the fridge have RFID tags, the video screen also displays a suggested shopping list. When she leaves home for her day at the office, the house automatically locks, and the alarm sets.

Getting it all together
Improving the way various systems are integrated and controlled is the future of home automation. An incredible number of apps and gadgets exist; the challenge is making them easy to use and inexpensive to install and maintain.

BROWN is an electrical engineer, technical writer and editor. For many years, he designed high-power electronics systems for industry, research laboratories and government. Reach him at or at, an independent professional writing service.

About the Author

Edward Brown

IBS Columnist and Freelance Writer
Edward Brown is an electrical engineer, freelance writer and editor who draws on his years of practical experience designing industrial processing and high-power electronics systems. In addition to writing the Integrated Building Systems column for E...

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