Do smart homes really exist? Karl Walker of Beckhoff argues that most simply don’t live up to their billing.

It would seem that the term ‘smart home’ is being over-used and abused. The proliferation of so-called ‘smart devices’ for our homes is relentless, with everything from kettles, fridges, thermostats, doorbells and lightbulbs in the portfolio. This functionality has been largely enabled by the advent of the Internet of Things with the miniaturisation and mass production of chips driving the price point ever downwards, such that cost is no longer really a consideration for its incorporation into a product.

So, what makes them smart? The fact that you can control them with your phone or ask your Google Assistant or Alexa to turn them on or monitor them? No. The true definition of smart is a context-aware electronic device that is generally connected to other devices that can operate interactively and autonomously.

The majority of devices being marketed as smart are designed to tackle small inconveniences in everyday life but a true smart home will observe and respond to the unique requirements of home life and enable longer-term solutions. Once the leap is then made to smart cities or smart communities the data collected can be analysed to allow the entire city or community to function more efficiently, using information on facets such as transport systems, pollution levels and energy usage to help both residents and governing bodies make informed decisions. In understanding how communities interact with their environment on a daily basis, smart cities can deliver long term benefits for whole communities.

Traditionally, so-called smart homes have been the preserve of the wealthy that demanded the services of a custom install company to automate AV equipment, blinds and curtains, lighting, heating, and so on. These bespoke systems typically cost tens of thousands of pounds and present a heavy reliance on the installer to maintain them or make changes to their functionality without considering the wider needs of their occupants – can we really call these ‘smart homes’?

At the other end of the scale the £4.99 WiFi-enabled lightbulb and £99 intelligent thermostat has seen the potential for cost-effective deployment in the home, within the reach of everyone. However, problems rear their ugly heads when you try to set up these devices. Poor instructions, poor quality products, lack of support from the manufacturers and the reliance on stable and correctly-configured WiFi and internet performance all hinder the process, along with (typically) a dedicated app for each different device. This time, the reliance is on the enthusiastic hobbyist-cum-tinkerer to get, and keep, things working. Once up and running the end-result is often equally underwhelming, with independently functioning ‘gadgets’ lacking the necessary flexibility to adapt to the specific needs of the occupier.

“Why has it stopped working?”

Anyone that has invested the time in getting their mobile phone to change the colour of their lighting or set their room temperature will have experience the “it’s stopped working for no reason” scenario.

Manufacturers’ app and firmware updates, changes to router settings or change of internet provider can all cause failures, and then you’re often back to the “delete everything and start again” method.

Several property developers have told me, “We tried to incorporate smart technologies in our builds but have just given up. The reliability and ongoing support requirements make it too much of a headache.”

Even if reliability issues are nullified, multiple connections to the Internet inevitably bring about security concerns and questions over what happens when one part of the system ‘falls over’ and is shut down.

The cost of automation

The perception that technology is cheap has encouraged people to experiment with smart automation in their own homes. However, in order to properly converge these ‘gadgets’ and automate them to create an intelligent, decision-making system requires yet another layer of software and expertise. The hobbyist may use something like IFTTT (If This Then That) or write some bespoke code in Python on a Raspberry Pi in order to exchange data between devices and define the control strategies.

At the other end of the scale, we have the expensive, professionally-installed and maintained systems that still typically lack the intelligence that you might find in a modern commercial building, focussing more on high-end audio-visual integration than energy efficiency. Having said that, if you can afford one of these systems you probably aren’t overly concerned about the size of your gas and electricity bills.

There are some middle-ground alternatives aimed specifically at home automation but, again, these tend to demand bespoke design and installation and come at a price, typically requiring the services of qualified installers and custom software development. Very rarely will you see these systems in multi-unit developments, except at the luxury end of the market.

Homes that look after you

Many existing smart devices either solely monitor one aspect of the environment or one aspect of health. If devices could talk to each other, individuals could not only better understand how to manage their health but also prevent serious health emergencies. Devices like environmental sensors and personal wearables can combine their data, providing better targeted insights for a broad range of health conditions. Once collated, information can be analysed to provide real, actionable insights, from monitoring underlying health conditions to general fitness. These systems and devices can be used the monitor a host of other variables, such as measuring building sustainability through carbon tracking.

With all of this in mind, what would a system need to look like such that it could be deployed at scale in an average property, encouraging developers to specify it as part of their residential schemes?

  • No specialist installation skills
  • Open and maintainable software
  • No reliance on internet connection
  • Easily upgradable
  • Reliable
  • Secure
  • Context aware (environment)
  • Something that adds value to the lives of the occupiers

Quick smart

The word ‘smart’ has become prefixed to so many home devices that it is steadily being stripped of its real meaning in the domestic context. Very few of these devices will ever form part of a truly smart solution.

A building should only really be considered smart if it is performing the desired functions efficiently and with minimal input, eventually becoming fully responsive to the continuously evolving needs of the occupier. Whatever its size, if a building is truly smart it will be easy to manage and use data to accurately assess, predict and adapt to the needs of occupier throughout the lifecycle of the home.

Under a UK Research and Innovation fund from the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and as part of the “Transforming UK Construction” scheme, MyGlobalHome has partnered with Beckhoff Automation, The University of Surrey and consulting engineers, Buro Happold, to demonstrate a large-scale-viable mass house buildings process that will enable homes to be built faster, cheaper and with dramatically reduced carbon emissions and increased whole-life performance.

Using Beckhoff’s automation expertise and PC-based control hardware as the technology enabler, the MyGlobaHome ‘ULTRA’ platform will allow the delivery of smart homes at the point of construction.