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Domotics 101 - An Introduction to Advanced Domestic Technology

Updated on July 4, 2014

What is Domotics?

Domotics is simply building automation for domestic dwellings, otherwise known as 'home automation'. The term 'domotics' itself combines the words 'domestic' and 'robotics', which tells you a lot about what the field is all about, but can be slightly misleading. Domotics is not just concerned with what you might think of as robots - it deals with all kinds of advanced domestic technology, automation devices and electronic control systems for the home. This could be as simple as having a phone app which can turn on the heating, or a sensor to turn off the lights if a room is unoccupied (as many public buildings have).

This hub aims to provide a general overview of modern domotics / home automation, aimed at those with limited or no knowledge of the subject, as well as a gateway for anyone interested in the subject to access the best resources to learn more. Over time I hope to create a free online course in domotics, with this article as the first section.

An example of a home automation controller
An example of a home automation controller | Source

What's in a Home Automation System?

Most home automation systems include a central 'controller' - a physical piece of hardware which serves as the brain of the system, connecting to various devices around your home which can be controlled. It will usually also connect through the internet to an app which lets you control your household technology using your phone, tablet, or personal computer. Simple systems may just have a remote control as the central controller, or may not have an independent controller at all, but most systems will have a small electronic box which sits on a shelf or in a cupboard.

In addition to the central controller, most home automation systems will include sensors and actuators - that means things which sense things and things which do things. There is a huge range of both sensors and actuators available, as well as a huge range of things which you can do with them. It's impossible to create an exhaustive list because there will always be someone, somewhere who has come up with an innovative new system or a novel application for existing technology, but I've listed some of the most common sensors and actuators below:

Common Sensors, Actuators and Domestic Robots

Sensors
Actuators
Robots
Motion Sensors (PIRs)
Radiator Valve Actuators
Vacuum Cleaner
Light Intensity Sensors
Automatic Door Opening
Lawn Mower
Window and Door Contact Sensors
Common Switches
Window Cleaner
Temperature Sensors
Dimmers (e.g. for lights)
Mop / Floor Cleaner
Humidity Sensors
Motors (eg for blinds or curtains)
Remote Presence Device
Carbon Monoxide Sensors
Alarm Sounders
Mobile Camera
Smoke / Fire Detectors
Remote Locks
 
Video Cameras
Sprinkler Control
 
Flood / Leak Detectors
Hot Tub ./ Sauna Controls
 
 
Media Network / Distribution Matrix
 

What Can You Control or Automate?

Almost anything electrical or electronic can be integrated into a home automation system, but most application fall into one of the following categories:

  • Lighting
  • Temperature and Humidity regulation
  • Security Systems
  • Media distribution
  • Simple chores
  • Blinds / Curtains
  • Energy / Power Use

Hello, This Is Your House Calling...

The majority of people today have a smartphone or tablet computer which can be used to communicate with and control a domotic system. This has opened up a massive range of really useful and exciting applications, and home automation technology - much of which has been around for a while - is truly coming of age through this integration with our personal electronics.

We are comfortable using our phone and usually have them close at hand. This makes them a convenient and easy to use interface through which we can control our homes. But arguably even more exciting than this is the fact that we can stay in touch with our home and control it from wherever we are in the world.

To give you an idea of the vast range of possibilities which this opens up here are a few examples to demonstrate why home automation apps are really cool:

  • Coming home from work early? No problem, you can open up your app and switch on the heating / air con when you leave so that the temperature is perfect for when you get back. Conversely if you have your heating set to come on at a scheduled time and you are delayed, you can easily delay the heating cycle from your phone to save wasting energy.
  • Do you always worry you've left something on when you go out? Your app can give you peace of mind by allowing you to check the status of your electronics and household appliances and turn them off from wherever you are.
  • When most alarms go off they make lots of noise which annoys the neighbours, but which everyone basically ignores. An alarm integrated into a home automation system can call you to tell you something is wrong, and could even stream video to you so you can see exactly what is happening. You can then decide whether or not you need to call the police, and maybe even direct them to the exact location of the intruder when they arrive. You could also remotely trigger defence technologies such as a fog bandit.

Some Examples of 'Smart Home' Designs

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Wired or Wireless?

Any home automation system relies on various devices around your home being able to communicate with each other and with the controller. This communication obviously requires some kind of connection between them. There are three main options for this:

  • Wireless:Probably the most common method in use today is wireless communication. The main advantages of this are the low cost and ease of installation. The fact that you don't need physical wires connecting your devices means that there is no major building work required and you can get wireless systems installed inexpensively or even do it yourself. The huge range of different wireless devices in use today, however, means that your system will have competition for space on the airwaves, and may suffer from intermittent interference or other reliability problems. There are work-arounds that a good installer can use to mitigate reliability issues, but there are some things you can't do anything about. Concrete floors, for example, can sometimes block wireless signals, and so can metal - so you may not be able to have shiny metal switches.
  • Powerline: Some home automation systems piggy-back on your existing electrical power lines to send signals. Up until a few years ago the X10, which uses this method, was the most popular system in the world for DIY domotics. Powerline systems share many of the same advantages and disadvantages as wireless - they suffer from interference and relaibility issues but don't require new wiring. The X10 has fallen out of favour these days because of its poor reliability, but other systems like UPB have been developed with improved reliability.
  • Structure Cabling: Installing new wiring in your home to control your home automation system can be very expensive, but offers some significant advantages. The absence of interference is an obvious advantage, as is the ability to distribute HD or ultra HD signals around your home (from a single source to multiple televisions, projectors and audio systems) without diminishing the signal quality.

Domotic Protocols

A 'protocol' may sound like a very fancy technical term, but in actual fact it really just means a 'language'. In order for your household electrics and electronic devices to communicate with each other, and with your controller, they all need to share a common language.

There are a wide range of different protocols for home automation systems to use, and some controllers are 'bilingual', meaning that they can communicate using more than one protocol. It is very important to choose the right protocol for your system, especially if you may want to expand or modify it in the future. You need to make sure that any additional features or hardware you might want is able to communicate properly with the rest of your system.

The protocol you choose will influence the price of your system, its reliability, and the range of different features which are available. Some protocols include special features to improve reliability. One example of this is the z-wave wireless protocol which uses a 'mesh network' in which each device re-transmits any signal it receives in order to extend range and improve reliability. Some protocols are very popular, meaning that there will be a massive range of different devices and controllers capable of speaking that language, whilst others will only have a small range of products on the market. Finally, you should consider whether you want to use an open protocol or branded system.

Open protocol means that any manufacturer can create devices which speak that language - this means lots of choice, plenty of innovation, and competition to drive down prices; but it also means that without central control there can be no quality guarantee for products beyond that provided by individual manufacturer themselves. Closed, branded system usually require professional installation and are often significantly more expensive, but on the other hand they are usually very high quality and may include advanced patented features not available elsewhere.

Popular Protocols and Branded System

Wireless
Powerline
Structured Cabling
Branded Systems
Z-Wave
X10
Dedicated cabling has less need for protocols as the medium of communication is simply electricity.
Lutron
En Ocean
UPB
 
Crestron
Zigbee
 
 
Control4
LightwaveRF
 
 
HAI
Insteon
 
 
 
xAP
 
 
 

Energy Saving and the Smart Grid

Home automation isn't just about fancy gadgetry to show off to friends and to make your life easier and more fun - although it is all of those things. It's also about saving you money. That's right, cold hard cash in your pocket. There are a wide range of products on the market today which can help you to reduce your energy bills, and with the continued development of the 'smart grid' this trend looks set to explode in the near future.

The 'smart grid' is a modernization of electricity supply infrastructure which is scheduled to be rolled out across the United States and Europe in the near future. It involves development of two-way communication between the suppliers and users of electricity. It will allow electricity companies to better understand and anticipate demand, but could also allow them to communicate information back to households and potentially adjust pricing throughout the day to smooth out demand. This could mean that smart grid enabled appliances and devices could be set to wait until the house's electricity supplier signals a period of low demand before switching on, and in return be rewarded with a reduced price.

Even without the smart grid there are plenty of ways in which home automation can already help you to reduce electricity bills. Here are some of them:

  • Most lighting control systems will allow you to dim as well as switch your lights. Having a dimmer on every light allows you to use only as much power as is necessary, rather than being forced to have your lights on full power or not on at all.
  • Presence sensors can turn off lights and other devices automatically if a room is empty, saving energy wastage. They can even turn down the heating in a room if it has been empty for a present period of time.
  • Zoned heating, which allows you to control the precise temperature in each room individually from a convenient phone app, reduces energy waste from heating rooms unnecessarily.
  • Leaving electronic devices on standby and chargers plugged into sockets wastes a huge amount of electricity. Having an app which can turn appliances off at the wall without you even needing to get up makes it much easier to cut out this waste.
  • Energy monitoring is a part of many systems, and knowledge is power. Knowing which devices use the most energy can help you to reduce your bills.

DIY and the Maker Culture

No discussion of household electronics could be complete without reference to the burgeoning internet 'maker culture' of DIY electronics enthusiasts .

For anyone with a few technical skills - or the time and ability to learn them - there is a huge amount of information available online to help you develop and install your own home automation system. If you are interested, this goes way beyond just installing an off the shelf system. There are plenty of people out there publishing tutorials on the internet to teach you how to program and use cheap electronic 'microcontrollers' like the Raspberry Pi or Arduino to control your home or build your own robotic devices.

Maker culture also goes beyond automating and controlling existing household devices, to include other advanced home technology such as 3D printers.

Media Distribution and Control

Another major element of domotics is media distribution. Structured cabling and HDMI matrices can distribute the signal from a single Blu Ray player, games console, set top box et.c. to televisions and other media receivers throughout a property. If you have televisions in 4 or more rooms this can be cheaper than buying separate equipment for each room, and is a hell of a lot easier than unplugging things and moving them each time. You also get additional control options.

Integratomg media into a broader control system opens up a range of really cool features. Imagine, for example, clicking as single 'cinema' button to close the blinds, power up the Blu Ray player and switch on the TV, dim the lights, and so on. A single button which performs a range of actions like this is called a 'scene'. A good controller will allow you to program your own scenes without too much trouble, and professional installers will usually help you with this.

Do You Currently Have Any Domotics In Your Home?

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Automation vs Refined Control

When you are buying or designing a domotic system it is important to be clear in your mind exactly what it is that you want - not only in terms of individual components and features but also in terms of general purpose and style.

This can be seen clearly when you consider the issue of control. Some aspects of home automation are designed to give you additional control, whereas others are designed to 'automate' things - which by its nature necessarily takes control away from you. These are completely opposite functions, which shows that if you haven't thought clearly about what you want from a system you could end up with the exact opposite of what you wanted.

This issue of control is also why I prefer the term 'domotics' to 'home automation', because it encompasses both aspects of the technology. Personally I like to gain additional control more than I like to give control away (although automating some things is very nice); an example of this from my personal life is a fridge which I own. It is very clever and knows when it has been opened too much, making the temperature drop - and it takes action by temporarily locking the door. This annoys me very much because sometimes I want to get something from the fridge and can't. I love technology which helps me do what I want. I really, really hate technology which thinks it knows better than me.

Knowing exactly what you want to achieve with system in advance helps to ensure that you will be completely satisfied with the finished product.

The Future of Household Robotics

Many experts, from Bill Gates to top academics, are predicting that in the next 10-20 years we will see an explosion in the range of robotics devices in the home.

This is unlikely to take the form of a single 'robot housemaid', as some people envisioned in the past. It is more likely that we will have a range of robotic devices designed to handle individual chores and operate in conjunction with specific appliances. We already have robot vacuum cleaners, floor cleaners, window cleaners and lawn mowers - and I promise you that more robots will be entering our homes very, very soon.

How Much Have You Learned?


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