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26
December-2010

Smart Home Automation Technologies in the UAE

The Smart Home Automation industry in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been growing at a rapid pace since its dawn over the last several years. The market is becoming more and more aware of the capabilities of having a complete automation system whether at the scale of individual residences, palaces, real estate developments, and hotels. Many developments in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have already been completed with a pre-installed automation system. Many developments in areas like Victory Heights, Arabian Ranches, Sports City, and Reem Island have also been built with infrastructure to support such technologies in the future.

In basic form, automation includes systems that control Lighting, Appliances, HVAC, Curtains and Multimedia. The market in the UAE has not only begun to realize the benefits in terms of comfort, security, and luxury. But also in terms of energy saving and increasing property value, thus all these realizations will continue to lead to a booming market in the UAE.

As automation is somewhat of a new technology in the mainstream market, one must be aware of the countless number of underlying technologies that connect and allow for the communication between a user and the Light Dimming Systems or Air Conditioning Systems. On the surface, these technologies may seem to lead to the same functionality, but in the back-end, they are different in potentially catastrophic ways. This leads us to the reason why we started composing this article, that is, to shed light onto the pros and cons of the different technologies (regardless of product or vendor) which are available in the UAE market today.

Any automation system is composed of 2 high-level components, the controller, and the modules. The modules include light dimmers, relay switches, thermostats, motorized curtain control systems, distributed speakers..etc. which are to be controlled by the home owner. The controller, is the heart of the system from which signals are sent to “Dim the lights” or “turn on the air conditioning”. The method of communication between the controller and the modules are the Automation Communication Technology which we wish to address in this article. The method of communication can either be through wires or wireless and are usually in line with certain protocols or standards of communication. This article will explore and compare KNX, X10, Zigbee, En-Ocean, and Z-wave.

The criteria for comparison which we will explore are the following:

  • Reliability of Communication: How reliable is the communication between the Controller and the Modules? When a message is sent to a module, the system must ensure the message’s arrival and confirmation of receipt. Scoring well in this criteria is very important to ensure that even under circumstances of wired or wireless interference messages are resent until confirmed by the receiving module. Not all protocols comply with this requirement.
  • Security of Communication: The protocol must guarantee that a 3rd party cannot infiltrate an existing system and operate it with unauthorized access. The results of a hacker entering a parking lot of a hotel and turning all its lights off is disastrous.
  • Price
  • Features and Capabilities: It is important that automation technologies go beyond just controlling individual modules and have the capability to integrate with other systems most typically entertainment since that is an area of high usage of any home owner. Example: Easy Integration with Multi-room Music Systems, Multi-room multimedia distribution systems (Movies, Videos, Pictures, Music)...etc.
  • Investment Protection: It is important to make sure that installed Controller or Modules can be easily replaced in the future. Consider having installed a system that has some components fail after 5 years, and at the same time, the company which installed it became bankrupt. The home owner would be left with no choice but to completely revamp the entire electrical system in the residence which would cost more in time, labor, and equipment that what was originally paid for the automation system. Having a system that is standardized means that any other company can support it or replace certain parts with different products, maybe from different vendors, in order to ensure continued operation.
  • Interoperability: This criteria refers to the capability of the Controller to speak to multiple Modules from different manufacturers. This will ensure that a system is made up with Lighting, HVAC, Curtains, Appliances, and Multimedia Control Modules are purchased from different manufacturers which are the best or most specialized in those fields. This ensures that a system has the best-in class Modules for each particular purpose. It is not logical that the best manufacturer of light dimmers is also the best manufacturer of curtain control systems, or audio systems. Some communication protocols are closed or proprietary, thus forcing the customer to purchase everything from a single manufacturer. This criteria also overlaps with the Investment Protection Criteria since having an interoperable system will give future flexibility to easily replace Modules even if the company which installed them has closed down.

The remainder of this document will address each communication technology based on the above criteria.

KNX

KNX is an international standard of communication typically installed in wired twisted pair environments. KNX was designed in 1990 and was made as a very robust protocol to be used in industrial automation applications. The protocols reliability cannot be questioned since it implements many OSI communication layers and is quite complex. KNX is also controlled by the KNX association and any company usually spends thousands of dirhams on their employees to go through training in order to understand the inner workings of the system. KNX is a complex protocol by nature, and was designed long before the “smart home” concept was born, thus the hardware that has the capability to support the complexity of KNX is expensive not only to engineer, but also to manufacture and thus the hopes for this technology to become cheaper than its current alternatives is futile.

KNX has and is a popular choice for hotels since 2006 and has been deployed in many developments such as the Shangri-la in Dubai, Rotana Hotels in the Marina, Fairmont, Movenpick to name a few. KNX is also being specified by many real estate consultants for major developments in the Abu Dhabi Reem Island and Yas Island.

  • Reliability of Communication: Yes
  • Security of Communication: Yes
  • Price: No
  • Features and Capabilities: No. KNX has been more focused at the simple facility of automation and typically fits in hotel environments where customization and multimedia integration is not required.
  • Investment Protection: Yes
  • Interoperability: Yes

X10

X10 is an international open standard developed in 1975 by Pico Electronics of Scotland, in order to allow remote control of home devices and appliances. It primarily uses the 220V power line wiring for sending messages between the Controller and the Modules (Lighting, HVAC…etc).

X10 has only receyved some popularity many years ago when automation technology started being introduced in the UAE. And was typically installed in small villa project then was slowly discontinued due to its reliability issues.

  • Reliability of Communication: No. Since it is prone to interference from multiple sources like transformers, motors typically found in TVs, washing machines, fans…etc. Also, messages from Controller to Modules are never acknowledged so there is no 2-way communication.
  • Security of Communication: No. If a 3rd party can tap into the powerline of a house, messages can easily be sent to control whatever the 3rd party wishes.
  • Price: Yes
  • Features and Capabilities: Yes. This technology can easily be integrated into PC based systems and many options are available to provide feature rich capabilities for residential applications.
  • Investment Protection: Yes
  • Interoperability: Yes

Zigbee

ZigBee is an open wireless network communication protocol based on the IEEE specification IEEE 802.15.4, which enables the Controller to communicate with its Modules via Radio Frequency. The standard is a development of the ZigBee Alliance, which was founded in the end of 2002. It is an industry alliance of more than 230 enterprises who take up the worldwide development of this technology. The first ZigBee products came on the market in the beginning of 2005. Because Zigbee standardises only the lower protocol layers (radio layer), the different manufacturers have defined their own higher software layers. As a result ZigBee devices of different manufacturers are not compatible with each other.

  • Reliability of Communication: Yes. A wireless mesh network is created and ensures multiple path routing to every module which translates to long reach, and high reliability in case of interference or even in case of in-path device failure.
  • Security of Communication: No. Zigbee uses weak hashing algorithms and has been researched to be penetrable. Penetration is not easy but software tools such as “Killerbee” exist and can allow any person with little Linux and scripting experience to hack into an existing Zigbee network.
  • Price: No
  • Features and Capabilities: Yes
  • Investment Protection: Yes
  • Interoperability: No

En-Ocean

EnOcean is a wireless radio frequency based, energy harvesting technology used primarily in building automation systems. It is not set out for international, European or national standardization; however, EnOcean GmbH is offering its technology and licenses for the patented features under license within the EnOcean Alliance framework. The concept was developed to enable batteryless sensors and switches for building automation. Which is questionable in terms of energy saving because existing alternatives can consume as little as 500W per 60 storey tower in automation devices.

EnOcean based technologies have been installed in some big projects such as the Abu Dhabi Central Market, the Dubai Financial Center...etc.

  • Reliability of Communication: No, En-Ocean does not offer 2-way communication between the Controller and its Modules. Also the Controller is at a star network with the Modules and there is no wireless meshing, this one-to-one signal mapping can drastically fail in times of high interference.
  • Security of Communication: Yes
  • Price: No, En-Ocean prices are more aligned with KNX.
  • Features and Capabilities: No. Supported but not yet seen in the market.
  • Investment Protection: Yes
  • Interoperability: Yes

Z-wave

Among all the above protocols, Z-wave ranks the best so far. The strength of Z-wave lies in the big number of different products from different manufacturers as well as the very robust, 2-way, meshed, and secured wireless communication. Z-wave is also made up of low power chip that consume 10mW at peak and are low cost since they were originally designed in 2003 for residential home applications.

Z-wave is viewed as the next generation of Smart Home Technology and product lines have started to emerge from big players such as Honeywell and Schneider Electric. This technology is not only feature full, reliable and secure, but will be offered at competitive prices and investment protection for projects of any size starting with individual villas all the way to large real estate towers. As of today, Z-wave has been deployed in many villas in the UAE at an individual scale. Z-wave is also starting to make its way through many of the large tenders for developments throughout the Emirates

Z-wave is a mesh networking technology where each Controller or Module on the network is capable of sending and receiving control commands through walls or floors and use intermediate nodes to route around household obstacles or radio dead spots that might occur in the home. Some common applications for Z-wave include Remote Home Control And Management, Energy Conservation, Home Safety And Security Systems, and Home Entertainment.

By adding Z-wave to home electronics such as lighting, HVAC and security systems, it is possible to control and monitor these household functions via remote control, touchscreens, TVs, or even over the internet through IP gateways. One of the benefits of Z-wave over other technologies is the ability to function in older houses in simple retro-fit applications. This means Z-wave systems can be installed in existing homes not necessarily in construction.

Z-wave is envisioned as a key enabling technology for energy management in the green home. As an example, Z-wave-enabled thermostats are able to raise or lower automatically, based on commands from daylight sensors. Grouped scene controls can ensure that unnecessary energy consumption is minimized by various all-off states for systems throughout the home, such as lighting, appliances and home entertainment systems.

Z-wave's ability to command multiple devices as a unified event makes it well suited for home audio and video applications. For example, a simple "Play Movie" command on a wireless Touch Panel could turn on the needed components, set them to the correct inputs, even close the curtains and dim the lights.

  • Reliability of Communication: Yes
  • Security of Communication: Yes
  • Price: Yes
  • Features and Capabilities: Yes
  • Investment Protection: Yes
  • Interoperability: Yes