How the IoT and the smartphone are enabling the smart home

10th May 2017
Lanna Cooper


How the IoT and the smartphone are enabling the smart home by Ajinder Singh, General Manager Building Automation, Lighting & Display at Texas Instruments.

Providing a comfortable space for its occupants is only the minimum requirement for a habitable building, whether it be a primitive shelter, or modern steel and glass structure.

A building should be more than just a 'container' for its occupants. By infusing a building with cognitive abilities, the IoT can help occupants be more productive while minimising operating cost as well as environmental impact.

A building is 'smart' if its lighting systems, HVAC, fire alarms, security and elevator systems are aware of each other at all times; for a building to quickly adapt and respond to the needs of both occupants and the grid, its electrical systems have to share intelligence.

But, such intelligence costs money, upfront. Though a smart building can save on energy and operational costs over the long term, the short term still requires investment in systems equipped with sensor networks, gateways and cloud computation capabilities.

When it comes to commercial smart buildings, there is no choice; design engineers have to design systems that meet energy-efficiency regulations like the California Energy Commission’s Title 24. Today, commercial buildings represent 40% of all US energy consumption. A significant portion of that percentage is spent on Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC). Having demand-controlled ventilation based on people counting can result in 15-20% savings compared to a fixed HVAC schedule. Adjusting the indoor light of a building based on the occupancy as well as the outside light coming in (a daylight harvester) can also help reduce the energy footprint of a building significantly.

(Besides energy savings, there’s a further benefit to investing in smart sensors for commercial buildings:  Increased productivity of its occupants. Imagine Bluetooth low energy beacons that help navigate through a complex maze of office spaces to find a conference room, or having an elevator waiting for you, pre-programmed to your destination floor).

Unlike commercial buildings which are subject to regulations, the decision to make a home smarter is voluntary. Still, more and more of us are choosing to invest in that option. A video doorbell is easily ten times more expensive than a traditional doorbell; the same holds true for smart thermostats. Why are we, as customers, willing to pay the premium for home automation?

First, because IoT makes building automation both more practical and affordable. Advances in sensing - of multiple physical parameters - and connectivity, combined with the ability to control the objects through a single interface allows us to manage our surroundings more effectively than ever before.

The second catalyst for the growing popularity of the smart home is the proliferation of the smartphone, which provides that single interface; an interface that is now both familiar and easy to use. Most consumers find it rather challenging to program a schedule on their sprinkler system. Because smartphones have become so ingrained in our lives, a smartphone application controlling our sprinkler system is often easier to interact with than a decades-old, product-specific human machine interface.

The third reason is convenience. Consumers can control their home even when they’re not inside: Opening the garage door remotely, or sending the secure authentication of a smart lock via a phone app.

Enabling these features, of course, is the underlying network of smart, connected sensor nodes, increasingly battery powered. To avoid frequent replacement and maintenance cost, a long battery life is important: these nodes have to work reliably with very low power consumption. Engineering solutions will have to embrace a holistic systems approach ranging over: Low power analogue; nanopower analogue for sensor processing; low power management with extremely low Iq; and connectivity solutions that are mostly asleep, but can quickly wake up to perform complex calculations like fast Fourier transform.

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