The Smart Home – It Won’t Happen Until There Is Unity

09-01-2021 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

The Internet of Things presents many opportunities for the home, but unless there is unity in how devices communicate, the smart home won’t become a reality any time soon. How could IoT devices help the everyday home, why are modern IoT devices not up to the task, and how can smart homes take inspiration from Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)?

How can IoT devices help the everyday home?

The Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to the many billions of devices around the globe that are connected to the internet. What started as simplistic devices that would gather basic sensory data such as temperature and humidity has become a diverse landscape with devices of all sizes, shapes, and capabilities. The same simple devices continue to gather basic data while more advanced devices can use AI to recognise faces and speech patterns. 

While IoT devices on their own can provide useful functions, they are most effective when used together. Different devices' ability to communicate with each other and share data allows for intelligent systems to be designed that can allow an entire environment to react in unison. 

The home is a classic example of an environment that would massively benefit from IoT integration. Various environmental sensors around the building can monitor the temperature inside and outside the home, while AC and heating controls can be linked to these sensors. Furthermore, facial recognition systems can determine the number of occupants in a home and their rooms. From there, the AC controls can be adjusted to only operate on specific rooms, thereby saving electricity and reducing overall CO2 emissions. 

Another example of how interconnected devices can be beneficial is the use of security systems. Electronic locks on all doors, combined with facial recognition, can be used to allow all occupants entry through the house's front door. Still, only certain users have privilege levels that allow them access to all rooms. 

A home fitted with IoT devices, including sensors, actuators, and controllers, would be extremely powerful. However, while IoT solutions exist, it is rare to find a property with such an intelligent system. Despite the technology existing, it is yet to be implemented, and one main reason for this is the lack of a unified communication method.


Why Smart Homes Are Not Available… Yet

Many smart products are available for the home, including IoT lights, door openers, and cameras, but a whole range often makes these of different manufacturers. This means that such devices are generally controlled via a smartphone, but linking all the devices to a central system can pose challenges. 

When it comes to IoT communication, many different protocols can be used, including MQTT, HTTP, and REST. However, even if two devices utilise the same protocol type (i.e. REST), the message structure may be different, and therefore the two devices require different handlers. Thus, these two devices cannot be connected to the same server and be expected to work.

How The IoT Industry Can Take Inspiration From Industry

The smart home faces the same issues that both the computer and industrial sector faced; incompatibility. 

For the longest time, computers built by different manufacturers would use their own operating systems, hardware architecture, and APIs meaning that software designed for one machine would not work on another machine. In industry, many different manufacturers of industrial equipment would often use their own proprietary protocols and communication methods, which would mean that different pieces of equipment would not communicate with each other or to a central server.

In both instances, the advantages of unification and common standards became all too clear, and most computers now follow common standards. The same applies to industrial equipment, the use of common protocols such as EtherCAT allow for a large range of different equipment to share information and work with centralised software.

One advantage of IoT devices is that they all work with standard networks (WAN and LAN), meaning that only the messaging protocol they use needs to be unified. Exactly how this unification happens is not clear, but there will need to be a consortium that will outline how messages should be parsed, and define keywords that can be read by any server software. 

A basic example would include the following message style.

  • Device Name (Name of the device)

  • Device MAC (Unique to each IoT device)

  • Device Permissions (Read/Write)

  • Data Packet

    • Data Name (Name of the data field – e.g. “temperature”)

    • Data Type (string, number, boolean)

    • Data Message (Data)

If such a common standard could be agreed upon, a device made by any manufacturer could roll our own devices. Those devices would instantly communicate to any server or cloud software designed to handle the home. Furthermore, any other device on the network could easily read the data and determine what data is useful. 

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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