Technology brings the idea of a connected home to reality, but many options are still complicated enough to be daunting. Where do I begin? What can I even do? These are the two primary questions this article will attempt to address, though it should be noted that the complex nature of such an endeavor means that this article can only be an introduction, with links and recommendations for additional research and reading.
In setting out, the first question that must be asked in any home automation or home security project is simple: what do I want to do that I currently cannot do? For many, the answer is probably as simple as “provide basic home security.” As we explore that question, though, it becomes readily apparent that such a seemingly simple question and response is not really as basic as it seems. What exactly do we mean by basic home security? Is it simply the presence of an alarm system that tells us when a door is opened unexpectedly, or is it something designed to proactively monitor and record those moments that occur for us to make a decision on whether to alert the authorities or not?
Three distinct types of systems are available for protecting the home while also providing varying degrees of remote access or control: complete, all-in-one security solutions, the traditional “home security system” model, and a complete, do-it-yourself solution that requires a bit more patience and logical decision-making to implement. Of the three, only the latter two may provide additional expandability/capabilities beyond the presence of some sort of security solution. Let’s start with the all-in-one type of
1. Canary: The All-In-One Home Health Solution
Canary is, in a nutshell, a small cylindrical device that contains a camera, microphone, and a handful of sensors that measure temperature, humdity, and air quality. It has an internal speaker and siren, and can be connected to a network through wired or wireless connections. Canary launched via a crowdfunding campaign on Indigogo (similar to Kickstarter), and is still in its infancy as a commercially available product. Note that there are a couple of alternative solutions that seem very similar that are currently in development, and therefore this particular type of device will most likely start to emerge as an easily-identifiable and available product category.
Canary’s hardware seems quite solid, though there are still a few bugs in the software (most notable among them being that on occasion notifications are semi-sporadic, and on a couple of occasions I have had to reboot one of the three devices I have been using for it to reestablish network connectivity).
The application driving the setup and use of the Canary device is simplistic, and as of this moment is only available on iOS and Android devices. The application allows you to watch the camera live, to review recorded clips where motion was detected by the camera, and to “teach” the device what triggered motion detection in the event it senses pet movement or something similar that you want to ignore.
The application uses location services on your phone to arm and disarm the Canary device(s) based on proximity, though manual arming and disarming can also be done through the application. There are two primary drawbacks to this type of system: it requires you to manually trigger the alarm upon receiving notification of an event, and the device/application cannot alert emergency personnel itself.
Even with the software bugs (which I should emphasize are being worked on and resolved by the manufacturer) and the limitation of relying on the user to trigger the siren or contact emergency personnel, the Canary is extremely useful for monitoring the inside of the home. The ability to simply pick up the device and relocate it to any area you wish to monitor cannot be emphasized enough. Currently I would not recommend it as a complete security solution, but as an augmentation of an existing system or as a way to check on home health in general, Canary is difficult to beat. Further, the ability to relocate the device at will can be extremely useful in situations where you need to monitor a sick or injured child or significant other staying at home, pets, checking in on houseguests, or having an extra layer of detection in the event a perimeter security system is circumvented or offline.
2. Alarm.com and Partners
Looking toward a more traditional security system, the likes of which most people are familiar due to ADT or other providers, very few provide the sheer level of customization and support at reasonable costs than Alarm.com. Although the equipment may vary slightly among distributors, each partner provides equipment that will integrate with the Alarm.com web portal and application, allowing remote monitoring and control of the system by the user.
I won’t spend a lot of time discussing the various options offered, because anyone who has ever looked into a monitored security system knows what kinds of options are available (door sensors, motion sensors, glass break sensors, etc.). Instead, it is important to emphasize why Alarm.com partners get the recommendation here, and the specific partner is Livewatch Security.
The initial investment will depend on the options chosen, such as number and type of sensors, integration with the mobile device application or only controlling the system through physical access to the control panel, etc. Similarities with every other alarm system provider end at that point, however. Livewatch configures the system and sensors based on an assessment with the user over the phone (i.e. naming each door sensor based on where they will be placed) and ships the entire bundle to the user to install. Installation does not require any tools, as all components are wireless and use commercial-grade adhesive to stay in place.
Livewatch requires a one-year contract for monitoring, at about $30 monthly for remote access from a smartphone (I was quoted $20 for just basic monitoring without smartphone access). After the one year period, billing continues monthly until cancelled. Upon cancellation, Livewatch will turn over the cellular connection used by the system to the user to maintain or discontinue as they choose.
For comparison, ADT charged $99 dollars to install a system, $59.95 monthly monitoring, and a three year contract when I was comparing options, and those prices did not include smartphone access (I could upgrade to a system that would have cost $199 to install and $64.95 monthly for those options).
Alarm.com partners also include the ability to integrate lamp/lighting control, video surveillance, and a full range of other options. As a commercial offering, this is a robust home security and/or home automation package that includes proactive monitoring.
3. Indigo - Home Automation and Security Solution
Indigo was originally developed as a software application (and it was, and still is, Mac OSX only) that allowed a user to control X-10 protocol devices (like those modules that allow you to turn lights on and off through a simple compatible remote) with schedules and trigger events instead of just the remote. Over time, it has evolved to control Insteon and Z-Wave compatible devices as well. The most simplistic way to describe Indigo now is to imagine an application that can control any compatible device based on a timed schedule, a triggering event, or an application/remote call to the device.
A word of caution, Indigo is not a simple, guided program that is easily accessible to those who are impatient or easily frustratable with technology. There are other platforms that aim to provide that level of user-friendliness (Wink being the most recent contender), but those solutions arrive at the expense of customizability and expandability, and many (specifically the Wink platform) seem to suffer from inconsistency and performance issues.
Indigo is capable of doing so many things that a full walk through or review is outside the scope of this write-up. Instead, we are going to focus on only one piece of what Indigo makes possible - home security.
At its core, Indigo is a software package that must be running at all times, and that connects via USB to a “controller” that interprets the commands from the server or from the connected devices and relays them to the other. Since multiple protocols may be used, this scenario leverages only the Insteon protocol devices. A basic security system, therefore, would use the Insteon door contacts and motion detectors to establish a perimeter, much like any traditional security system. The similarities end here, however, with all of the logic and alerting features being configured by rules within the Indigo application.
For example, once each device is connected and operating, the application could be configured to send an email or text alert to a contact any time motion is detected or a door is opened. An event could be set up to act as an “armed” or “disarmed” status, suppressing unwanted alerts. Additional modules, such as light controlling modules, could be set to be activated or deactivated based on motion or the opening of a door. In essence, any combination of modules and events could be used to customize the behavior of the system to suit the user’s needs. Walking through how to accomplish these tasks is well beyond the scope of this introduction, but even the basic features highlighted here are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are two primary drawbacks to the complete “DIY” package that should be noted, however. First, much like the Canary device, alerts can only go to the user and not automatically sent to emergency services. Second, the sheer customizability and expandability of such a system is not conducive to simple “plug and play” experiences. This type of system requires patience, some degree of technological understanding, and a lot of tweaking and modifying of rules, actions, and alerts until the system is set up the way you want.
In addition to the three solutions outlined above, an array of cameras and software may be used to add video surveillance to any premises. Although well beyond the scope of this article, it is important to provide some basic ideas on where to look in the event that video is a necessary component for a user when considering a security solution. Obviously Canary will work well, as already mentioned. Livewatch, the Alarm.com partner mentioned previously, also has a motion detector with a camera that can be included in the monitored system. Indigodomo, the folks behind the Indigo solution, also provide SecuritySpy software that acts as a DVR on the same computer you run Indigo on. For completely stand-alone DVR systems, it is really difficult to beat the price and feature set of Blue Iris, a Windows-based DVR application that works with almost any make of camera. Although only a few, any of the aforementioned options would integrate nicely into a connected home.
For cameras, Foscam has a broad range of options at multiple price points, and the quality of their cameras has been well above expectations. In addition, there are applications for iOS (and I would assume Android as well, though I do not know for sure) that can communicate directly with the cameras and not interfere with the DVR solution, allowing a user to check in at any time to see what is going on without interrupting recording to the DVR platform chosen.
In attempting to keep the information brief, it should be repeated that nothing can replace having a consultant assist with the design and implementation of any security or home automation system, especially if you are not sure where to start or are unfamiliar with the concepts of target hardening or crime prevention through environmental design. This article’s purpose is simply to expose you to the kinds of options that are available, and to potentially whet your appetite for further reading and investigation.
For those who would like more information beyond the very high level overview presented here, please do not hesitate to reach out and discuss your particular needs.
About the author: Jesse Hart has spent years in the field of Information Technology, and recently completed the required work for a Masters in Criminal Justice with concentrations in the Analysis of Criminal Behavior and Law Enforcement. In addition to his photography services, Jesse is launching an independent Risk and Security Consulting company in 2015. Although much of the information related to this new endeavor is not yet available publicly, you can reach Jesse through his site at http://www.jthart.com.