Key factors enabling smart home applications

In this blog post, Ted Batey, Sr. Marketing Manager for MCU products at Silicon Labs, shares insights into today’s smart home application development challenges and the latest breakthroughs in key technology enablers. 

The IoT is here today

Ted-bateyThe smart home is a prime example of how utility, telecommunications and security service providers around the world are leveraging the power of the Internet of Things. The smart home concept has gained significant momentum in the last several years and is poised for the mass market. This growing momentum is driven by the maturing of connectivity standards, the broad adoption of low-energy and wireless technologies, and the emergence of mobile apps that allow end users to monitor and control their homes through smartphones.

We are seeing the rapid rise of Internet-connected devices in the home to help users monitor and minimize energy usage. For instance, the Nest thermostat enables autonomous, intelligent monitoring and control of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in the home, helping users reduce their utility bills through more efficient energy usage. In addition to climate control and energy monitoring, smart home capabilities include fire and carbon monoxide detection, security and motion monitoring, remote access control, intelligent lighting control, and smart appliances such as wireless-connected washing machines or refrigerators capable of alerting consumers to maintenance issues.

We also are seeing broader deployment of wireless-connected devices in the home – even end-user-installed systems – replacing many of the previously wired “things” such as smart thermostats and security sensor nodes. Thanks to the IoT, we can now take all the data from these various smart home devices and make it available to users to monitor and control through smartphones.

The possibilities for future smart home innovations are wide-ranging, and will drive reduced energy costs, enhanced security, and new convenience features that will improve the overall quality of our lives.

In the smart home market, increasing standardization of communications protocols such as ZigBee Home Automation, Bluetooth Smart and emerging IP-based wireless protocols will create a level playing field where companies of all sizes can innovate and compete. The involvement of large companies like Google, IBM and Cisco reinforces the credibility of this growing market and helps accelerate the adoption of emerging communications standards for the smart home. This dynamic ultimately benefits smaller companies like Silicon Labs that are moving rapidly to provide new silicon and software solutions for the smart home. In summary, the smart home is a “green field” of application possibilities, and it’s an exciting time for the entire embedded electronics industry.

The primary device capabilities required to enable the smart home include sensing, actuation, processing and wireless connectivity. Developing the underlying technology to deliver these capabilities in an energy-efficient, secure, and reliable manner, at a consumer-friendly price point, is the key challenge we face.

We believe that mixed-signal microcontrollers (MCUs) based on ARM Cortex-M cores are key enablers for connected devices in the smart home. These MCUs must be very energy-efficient since many connected devices will be powered by batteries or even harvested energy sources. Connected devices also require very robust wireless networks based on ZigBee, Bluetooth Smart, and sub-GHz technologies.

Silicon Labs IoT solution-smarthome

Improving energy efficiency impacts not only the connected device (e.g., enabling a smaller battery to be used or extending battery life to months or even years) but also may have broader system implications, such as ease of installation. Take for example, a home security system, which may require numerous sensors (motion, door, window, etc.) to be placed throughout the house. The cost of installing wired sensors, particularly in an existing home, may be prohibitive compared to the cost of the security system itself. Battery-powered sensors with wireless connectivity can eliminate the need for wiring, minimizing system installation cost. But to gain consumer acceptance, long sensor battery life is essential. The MCU and wireless device selection is critical to achieving this low-energy, long-battery-life goal. The ideal component choices must support ultra-low power (i.e., very low sleep and active mode current, autonomous operation of peripherals and fast wake-up time) while maintaining responsive control and connectivity over the wireless link.

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Silicon Labs’ strategy for the smart home market is to be a “one-stop-shop” supplier of energy-friendly 8/32-bit MCUs, wireless transceivers, wireless SoCs and smart sensors. Our 32-bit EFM32 Gecko MCU portfolio includes nearly 250 products with ARM cores ranging from Cortex-M0+ to Cortex-M4, and integrated flash memory from 4KB to 1MB, supporting a broad spectrum of energy-sensitive, battery-powered applications. Our wireless portfolio includes IC products (from sub-GHz transceivers and transmitters to 2.4 GHz ARM-based ZigBee SoCs), software stacks and development tools. Silicon Labs also offers an array of smart environmental sensors (relative humidity and temperature) and optical sensors (IR, ambient light and ultraviolet index) that can be integrated into smart home and other IoT designs. With this breadth of MCU, wireless, sensor and software solutions, we are able to address a wide array of smart home application requirements.

In summary, the smart home market is an important component of Silicon Labs’ IoT strategy.  This segment is gaining rapid momentum as the key enabling technologies reach maturity.  These enablers include energy-efficient, cost effective hardware components (MCU’s, wireless SoCs and transceivers, and intelligent sensors) and standardized wireless communication protocols (ZigBee, Bluetooth Smart, and emerging IP protocols) that provide device/system interoperability.  Tying this all together is the need for robust security at both the device and network level.  Consumers will not tolerate having their security systems and other in-home devices being vulnerable to hackers and viruses. Smart homes and the IoT in general will not advance to the next phase of growth until all connected devices support robust security. Fortunately, the industry recognizes this issue and is actively working to bring enhanced security standards to market.  Once these are in place, we expect smart home market growth will enter a new phase of rapid acceleration.

Visit Silicon Labs’ Internet of Things page and download the IoT Solutions Guide. 

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