Innovation in Home Automation

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The Ideas Shaping Our Time

Today's connected home is powered by sensor-equipped systems that integrate functions to provide new levels of comfort, convenience, and safety. By: Ronald M. Weber, Global Industry Manager, Building Automation

There is a popular greeting that states: "May you live in interesting times." Like many sayings, it can offer a wish for fortunate encounters or cast a curse of ill-will. The interpretation often depends upon the mindset of the individual. The duality of this greeting provides a starting point for thinking about the idea of the connected home. There are numerous aspects of the connected home and some have the potential to be wondrous, others disastrous. Like most sayings, its impact relies on interpretation. The connected home, with the ever-increasing devices and functionalities produced for it, has the potential to transform how we experience residential living – both in terms of how we interact with our residence as well as how this interaction positively influences our everyday lives. At the heart of this transformation is a critical shift in the home from electro-thermal-mechanical devices to the electronified home that features self-monitoring, adaptive-learning systems.

To achieve full connectivity in the connected home, all elements need to be electronified... and integrated to operate seamlessly together.

Homeowners worldwide are familiar with the thermostats that control home HVAC systems. These thermostats by themselves have become quite interesting and sophisticated over the past few years, morphing from a collection of electro-mechanical slide switches and push buttons to sleek, button-less units teeming with sensors and added functionality. For many decades, a change of seasons meant homeowners needed to their change thermostat settings. At their basic level, these devices were simple thermo-electrical devices which utilized bi-metallic elements and mercury switches. Summer meant manually sliding a switch from "heat" to "cool," which meant that for the next few months, the cooling system was either on or off relative to the thermostat setting for preferred temperature. If the one particular summer night became unexpectedly cold, the homeowner needed to manually adjust the device to warm the interior, and then in the morning switched the thermostat back to the preferred warm-weather setting. Manual changes – daily, weekly, seasonally – were the norm and since most homes only had one thermostat. Any adjustment was a one-size-fits-all solution, for the entire house – from the kitchen to the attic – and for all occupants. The inevitable result was that someone in the residence always felt either too hot or too cold since it was impossible to adapt temperature to specific rooms or adjust to suit individual preferences. 

Sensors enable the advanced connectivity to integrate different systems within the home.
Sensors enable the advanced connectivity to integrate different systems within the home.

In the 1990s, as microcontroller costs dropped and processor capabilities increased, thermostat manufacturers began shifting from electrical devices in favor of electronic devices. For designers of thermostats, this electronification of thermostats posed new challenges. Suddenly, designers needed to add small board-level switches to accommodate the user interfaces as well as utilize miniature connectors for system wire terminations to the PCB. Smaller relays, previously not necessary, needed to be integrated in the designs to enable system switching. Market adoption of these programmable thermostats was driven by homeowners who understood their heating and cooling habits and who wanted the opportunity to customize and automate their heating and cooling preferences. Consumer demand for better, smaller devices led to mass-market miniaturization of programmable thermostats, resulting in the products we see in homes and on store shelves today. While these are technologically sophisticated and convenient, these devices are not smart nor adaptable to changing conditions. 

The natural evolution from these earlier programmable thermostat is the smart thermostat. Today’s smart thermostats – the first generation of adaptive learning technology – feature powerful microcontrollers that make this possible. Further, the price of processors continues to decrease enabling an ever-expanding host of high-tech capabilities within an affordable smart thermostat. These devices are increasingly capable of sensing, learning, communicating, and responding to the conditions the device detects. With the availability of smaller, more compact sensors – such as TE’s multifunction PTH device – coupled with the development of new use scenarios, these smart thermostats increasingly use their powerful processors to preprocess large volumes of data for algorithmic control schemes. A key additional critical development that makes today’s smart thermostat possible is the technical cross-pollination of functionalities from the consumer and mobile device industries. These include recent developments which include the integration of micro connectors, compact battery technology, and micro-switching devices within the smart thermostat. If you were to open a smart thermostat, you would see its cellphone heritage is readily evident, including its efficient and compact packaging of components. This added functionality made possible by the melding with mobile device technology is driving market adoption of smart thermostats. A key to this adoption is the diversity of sensors that enable a thermostat to detect occupancy, sound, and light levels, as well as monitor temperature and humidity. Together, these sensors generate a crucial data stream required for enabling greater convenience, which includes more than simply powering an HVAC system on or off. The power and intelligence of today’s smart thermostat extended through protocol capabilities that allow the thermostat to communicate data and extend reach beyond the wall it is mounted on. This linkability and the data possibilities that come with it is the smart thermostat’s decisive advantage over the older technologies.

Today’s smart thermostats – the first generation of adaptive learning technology – feature powerful microcontrollers that make this possible.

Today’s smart thermostats – the first generation of adaptive learning technology – feature powerful microcontrollers that make this possible.

The smart thermostat is just the starting point to realize the concept of the connected home. It is not the defining point of it although it sometimes is discussed in that context. A truly connected home will offer a cloud of data points from multiple sources that form a network of sensors, actuators, and equipment. These sources together drive the connected home. To achieve full connectivity in the connected home, all elements need to be electronified (as opposed to being strictly electrical devices) and integrated to operate seamlessly together. The smart thermostat is one element in this home cloud, albeit an important one. With its multiple sensors and communication capability, it generates, processes, and monitors a wealth of data that enables it to assess the home’s status, control its physical plant, and react to its inhabitants. Its capacity to connect to the internet and communicate with the cloud enable it to perform a higher level of analytics and algorithmic control for if-this-then-that functionality. This capability has the potential to change the way homes function in the future and how inhabitants interact with their homes.

This widespread deployment will drive smaller sensor assemblies which in turn will require smaller sensor elements and components and drive further integration of devices.

It is not a stretch to state the complexity in a smart thermostat is akin to a cell phone but in a manner similar to cell phones, their use, design and functionality will change in the future. The next step forward in the connected home could be based on a sensor platform with multiple sensor and control capabilities. When combined with the additional enablement offered by the cloud, these functionalities make real a vision of a connected home without a smart thermostat: Imagine a home equipped with an array of wireless and wired sensors deployed throughout the house; each generating, processing and communicating data to a centralized or cloud-based control which then appropriately controls the actuators and equipment in the home. The functionality currently offered by the smart thermostat is rendered unnecessary in such a sensored and connected home. When these sensors are combined with appropriately deployed actuators and equipment, it is possible to achieve a finer level of home control than ever before possible. This widespread deployment will drive smaller sensor assemblies which in turn will require smaller sensor elements and components and drive further integration of devices. This demand for miniaturization will lead to smaller, more tightly integrated end products; and as component suppliers like TE develop new products that support this demand, these devices will become ubiquitous in the home – and nearly invisible on the walls. These multi-functional, mass-deployed sensors assemblies will offer tomorrow’s connected home occupants another level of comfort and convenience as well as safety and security in one small package. Interesting times indeed are ahead for the connected home!