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Wireless home automation wakes up

Mar 17, 2008 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 15 views

ZigBee and other wireless home automation technologies have zigged and zagged in recent years as they've struggled to achieve success, but the future appears more straightforward, says an ABI Research study. The ABI study points to several Linux-based systems as future drivers of home automation adoption.

(Click for larger view of AMX's Linux-based Modero home automation panel)

Four years ago, ABI predicted huge success for the leading wireless home automation standard, ZigBee, calling the low-cost, mesh-based, low-bandwidth technology a “sleeping giant.” The market has yet to awaken, however. The obstacles to success, says ABI, have included the expense of luxury custom-installed systems, and the unreliability of low-end DIY products using older technologies, such as powerline-based X10 set-ups.

Control4's Linux- and ZigBee-based Control4 home automation system

According to ABI, two trends are sparking renewed interest in the technologies: reduced prices, and the debut of managed services offered by broadband and telco service providers. In the mainstream, high-end customer-controlled segment, a company called Control4 is offering a ZigBee- and a Linux-based home automation system and software development kit (SDK), and is applying pricing pressure to more established luxury home automation vendors such as Creston and AMX, which itself uses embedded Linux in its ZigBee-compatible Modero automation panel (pictured at top). Only recently, Creston and AMX home-automation systems typically cost over $60,000, says ABI. But now, Control4 and other vendors have forced prices down industry-wide to the $10-000 to $15,000 range, “with prices falling fast.”

ZigBee itself played a role in reducing the costs of the systems, says ABI's senior analyst Sam Lucero, and along with rival technologies such as Z-Wave, it's making possible even lower cost systems that are more reliable and feature-rich than X10-based automation sytems. “The introduction of ZigBee, Z-Wave, and similar standards-based technologies has led to new systems for mainstream consumers,” stated Lucero. “Big retailers such as Best Buy are getting involved and offering standard packages.”

zPoint's ZigBee Experimenter's Kit
(Click for details)

ZigBee is a low-duty wireless networking protocol designed for applications such as lighting controls, telemetry, security, and sensor networks for both home and commercial/industrial settings. It provides significantly lower data rates than other wireless standards such as WiFi, Bluetooth, or even GPRS/GSM, but, according to the ZigBee Alliance, a trade association formed to promote the standard, it also uses much less power. Other recent ZigBee-compatible products include zPoint's Linux-based Experimenter's Kit (see photo at right), claimed to be “Zigbee certified.”

The slow market penetration of ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4) may in part be due to competition and consumer confusion caused by a newer mesh-network technology called Z-Wave, which is being pushed by Zensys. The Z-Wave Alliance, which now boasts over 70 members, claims that because Z-Wave uses the 900MHz ISM frequency instead of ZigBee's more crowded 2.4GHz band, it offers less radio interference and lower power consumption. Z-Wave can be found in a number of lower-end home automation systems, including some Linux-based versions from Zykronix: the RBR70 and RBR84 home automation panels.

The second trend, managed services systems, refers to the arrival of automation systems that are remotely controlled by broadband providers. These systems often integrate home security and webcam monitoring as part of the home automation solution, says ABI. The research group mentions turnkey products for managed services from vendors such as 4HomeMedia, iControl Networks, Portus, uControl, and Xanboo.

Stated Lucero, “Telcos and broadband service providers are uniquely positioned to roll managed home automation and monitoring services out on a large scale.”


More details about the ABI study, “Home Automation and Security” may be available here.

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