Home time

The automation of functions within the home – heating, lighting, security – has yet to bear significant fruit in the market. This could be set to change, reports Jon Excell

Rather like the domestic android or the flying car, the all-singing, all-dancing smart-home that adjusts your heating, runs your bath and looks after things while you are away remains one of the unfulfilled technology dreams of the 21st century.

From standalone devices such as intelligent fridges to centralised controllers for heating, lighting and entertainment, plenty of companies have tried to enter the so-called home automation market; but high cost and poor levels of integration have meant that the technology has not quite lived up to its early billing.

Now Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia believes that it may have addressed these challenges and developed a solution that could finally make the networked home a reality. Expected to cost between €300 and €500 (£276 and £460), and scheduled for a European launch later this year, Nokia’s home-control centre uses a cellphone or other mobile device to communicate with a sophisticated home router that is wirelessly connected to devices around the home. The company claims that the system can be integrated with home lighting, security and heating systems, as well as, in the longer term, digital healthcare systems that could help keep patients out of hospital.

Talking to The Engineer shortly after unveiling the technology late last year, Toni Sormunen, Nokia’s smart-home director, claimed that after decades of stalled predictions the time is finally right for the smart home. He cited Nokia’s own market research and wider technology issues as the factors behind this fertile climate. ‘Broadband is widely used by our target customer segments, market penetration of mobile phones is practically 100 per cent, people are ecologically aware, have computers in their homes, and new wireless technologies such as z-wave and zigbee are available at reasonable cost so that appliances can be brought to the market.’

Sormunen believes that the Nokia system has two major advantages over competing products such as Siemens’ smart-home technology. First, making a mobile phone the user interface means that consumers will be able to control their heating or activate their security systems from either the comfort of the sofa or the other side of the world. But the real clincher as far as Nokia is concerned is the fact that any device from any manufacturer could potentially hook into the system. Thus, in much the same way that your computer will recognise and support a host of peripheral devices, when a new wirelessly enabled device is brought into the home the software is automatically updated to support its capabilities.

This openness even stretches to the mobile device used to control the system. ‘We recognise that there are people out there who are not using Nokia devices!’ said Sormunen.


Siemens’ smart home system

As well as creating opportunities for manufacturers, an open system that supports a number of different wireless protocols is also expected to help keep things simple for the end-user. ‘Our homes are full of sophisticated technology,’ he added, ‘and while many of these solutions work well individually the burden of setting up and controlling each individual device is increasing… unlike existing home-control systems [this] enables true plug-and-play set-up.’

Although Nokia is eyeing up a host of applications for the system, Sormunen is particularly excited about the contribution it could make to domestic energy efficiencies: ‘I am a firm believer that without smart controls in people’s homes it is going to be very difficult to cut back energy consumption,’ he said.

The company recently announced that it is collaborating with German energy company RWE on a compatible home heating-management system that will also be launched later this year.

Sormunen said that this solution will take smart metering to a new level, enabling users to monitor their energy consumption in real-time via their mobile phones. The system will also include a range of technologies for reducing consumption, including remote-controlled wireless radiator thermostats.

He added that working directly with energy companies makes it possible for smart metering solutions to take into account not just basic domestic energy usage but also wider factors such as how the energy being used has been generated. ‘It is critical to work with energy utility companies,’ said Sormunen, ‘depending on how the energy has been created there are different implications to CO2 emissions. When you have a close connection between the supply-and-demand sides the complete visibility on what is happening in the power grids will be there.’

In an effort to further stimulate the market for home automation products, Nokia has established a partner programme and is working with a number of companies on the development of compatible products. Although unable to comment on specific details, Sormunen said that these partners include heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) specialist Danfoss and energy-management expert Delta Dore.

In addition, more than 300 different products that have the potential to piggy-back on the system have been developed by members of the Z-Wave alliance, a consortium of manufacturers — including Panasonic, and Black and Decker — who are building wireless home-control products based on the Zensys’ Z-Wave wireless connection technology.

Outlining some of the other potential applications of the system, Sormunen pointed to a research project in which the home-control centre is being used to compare domestic air quality with outdoor temperatures and relative humidities. Analysing these factors, he said, could give a good picture and understanding of how well a home’s insulation and ventilation systems are working, and feed into wireless climate-control systems. Results from this project are expected by the middle of next year.

Another compelling use for the technology is the control of domestic security systems. In the short term, this could mean remote locking of doors and management of burglar alarms. Looking further into the future, Sormunen said the system could be incorporated into an advanced doorbell — the ‘morebell’ — that would enable users to remotely let domestic workers such as plumbers into their home.