Easily bridge between alternative power line carrier, wireless, and hard-wired protocols to create mixed installations that are optimized for ease, reliability, affordability, and functionality.

Bridging to Home Automation’s Future

William Foard | Foard Systems Design, Inc

Bridging to Home Automation's Future
William Foard, Foard Systems Design, Inc.

Easily bridge between alternative power line carrier, wireless, and hard-wired protocols to create mixed installations that are optimized for ease, reliability, affordability, and functionality.


Recently several new HA protocols have entered the market to challenge the venerable X10, giving home automation system integrators and Do-It-Yourself HA enthusiasts a rich set of protocols to choose from.  These new HA protocols include alternative power line carrier, wireless, and hard-wired protocols.  Although the new protocols may be more reliable than X10, they are often more expensive and lack the many specialty products available in X10.  This has resulted in the need to easily bridge between these alternatives to create mixed installations that are optimized for ease, reliability, affordability, and functionality.

Foard Systems Design, Inc. (FSD) has recently introduced a line of home automation products to help configure and control these mixed protocol environments.  The FSD products offer sophisticated automation capabilities, with an intuitive approach to configuration and control, at an affordable cost.

FSD has (1) a family of HA controller and HA protocol bridge products that come in a variety of sizes suitable for almost any installation, (2) an automation software suite for configuring and controlling the HA installation, and (3) a family of hard-wired devices to supplement capabilities provided by power line carrier and wireless devices.  Because these products work with a broad range of third party controllers and devices, it is possible to optimize either an existing or new HA installation.

FSD Controllers and Bridges

FSD's first product was a highly capable, sophisticated, multi-protocol automation controller and software suite.  There is now a range of smaller FSD controller and protocol bridge products to meet a wide range of specific application needs.   All FSD controller and bridge products use the same software (with features available to the extent that they are supported by the controller hardware), the same configuration philosophy, and have data cross compatibility.  Thus, a single configuration can run on multiple sizes of controllers.

FSD Compact Controllers

The FSD Compact Controllers provide flexible automation and timing capabilities for single HA protocol, moderately sized (up to 64 devices) installations.  Current models support X10 and UPB protocols, with support for X10 extended command variations from different device manufacturers.

FSD Compact Controllers support a rich set of features that include the following:

  • Time-of-day control with built-in dusk/dawn time calculation,

  • Interval-based timers (e.g. to gradually fade out a hall light after fifteen minutes),

  • Extremely flexible macro and macro device type capabilities allow for exporting and importing definitions for reuse in other installations.

Support for logical combination control operation "rules", with both event-based and state-based control.

All FSD controllers come with a floor-plan oriented graphical control interface.  This includes:

  • A graphics layout editor for entering custom floor plans

  • A feature to create and define custom device icons for use in the graphical display, and to associate these icons with the automation devices they represent

  • Expanded view functionality that allows the user to drill down from the overall floor plan to specific devices

In addition, all FSD controllers include the following features:

  • Remote access via LAN, wireless LAN, and the Internet, including remote monitoring, control, and configuration capabilities

  • A flexible data logger utility can be used for device state data logging applications (e.g. temperature, humidity, and/or power usage monitoring)

  • Installer utilities to log X10 and UPB packets, and to generate outgoing test packets

  • Both the Windows-based software and the FLASH-based controller firmware can be updated via the Internet.

Simplified Customization

Because FSD controllers provide a third-party application interface, they greatly simplify extreme customization.  They include an "easy" external control interface utility, a documented HA protocol-independent packet protocol for monitoring and controlling all device states, and openly accessible device state data log files.  These features provide an easy way to write custom control software that uses all FSD's supported HA protocols and devices, timer features, and macro capabilities.

These third-party custom application interface features have been used by other companies and by FSD's custom application design team to implement a variety of extremely diverse controller applications.  These include a large scale commercial/government security system, a laser beam-break perimeter monitoring system, a pharmaceutical process control system, a custom cable harness test system used in a manufacturing test facility, and an automated shipboard tag-out system prototype for the Navy.

FSD HA Protocol Bridges

Although home automation system integrators and enthusiasts now have a rich set of HA protocols (including power-line modulation, wireless, and wired) to choose from, each option has its own strengths and weaknesses.  Some offer more robust and/or capable communications; some have a wider range of compatible devices available; some are more easily configurable than others; and some are considerably less expensive than others.

The theoretically "Best" protocol choice for a system is often, or even usually, to mix technologies rather than to implement a single protocol, but until recently this has not been practical.  A mixed technology approach would let the system integrator make "Best" choices on a device-by-device basis, rather than a whole-system basis.  For example in a cost-sensitive installation, one might choose very robust but more expensive devices to control critical appliances and less expensive devices where dependability is less important.  Less common devices, such as an automated pet feeder or hot tub, might not be available in a newer, more reliable protocol.  When upgrading an existing installation or trying to "fix" a troublesome installation, one may want to add new devices using a different protocol. This avoids being trapped between (1) continuing with a protocol that isn't working everywhere, or (2) having to replace all the existing devices.

FSD protocol bridge products now make multi-protocol installations practical.  They are designed to ease the task of integrating multiple technologies, by providing a common approach for (1) configuring and communicating with different types of devices, (2) associating devices with each other, and (3) bridging new protocol devices with legacy controllers.

The FSD Compact Bridge provides a means to bridge bi-directionally between two HA protocols (X10 and UPB are supported by the currently available model).  The FSD bridge products bridge X10 extended code dimmer commands, X10 group commands, and UPB link commands, in addition to the ON/OFF X10 house/unit code and UPB direct commands.

The bridge has both an X10 power line interface port (typically connected to an X10 TW523 or equivalent module) and an X10 emulation port (which emulates a TW523 or PL513 for connection to a third-party legacy X10 controller or any device which connects to the power line via a TW523 module).  By going through an FSD bridge inserted between the legacy X10 controller and its TW523 power line interface, the X10 legacy controller can send and receive commands to and from UPB and hard-wired devices by using X10 commands.  X10, UPB, and hard-wired devices can also directly control each other in any direction, whether or not a legacy controller is attached.

The larger FSD X10-UPB-FGI Bridge Controller includes all of the features of the Compact Bridge and also has a USB interface for run-time control and data logging.  This bridge also supports a range of hard-wired devices via its FGI interface (discussed further below).

The FSD bridge products also provide numerous automation controller features.  These include

  • Interval-based timer commands

  • Support for macros, macro device types, and logical combination control operation "rules"

The larger bridges have the following additional features:

  • FSD's floor-plan oriented graphical control interface

  • Remote access via LAN and the Internet

  • Device state data logging

  • Log X10 and UPB packets and generate outgoing test packets

The third party custom application interface features described earlier.

The Compact Bridge provides the lowest cost bridge implementation for simple protocol bridge applications.  The larger bridge is the easiest to use, particularly for larger more complex configurations, since the USB interface allows run-time interaction with the bridge to help see what is happening.  Data sets are interchangeable, so an installer can use the larger bridge to initially configure and debug an installation, then leave behind the smaller lowest cost bridge for day-to-day system operation.

FSD Bridge Controller Plus

The new FSD X10-UPB-FGI Bridge Controller Plus combines all of the features of the FSD Compact Controllers and the FSD Bridge Controllers into a single product, so both time-of-day timer support and protocol bridge capabilities are available in one controller.  The Bridge Controller Plus also has double the memory capability for both user configuration data memory and program memory, so more user devices and macros can be configured, and more device types can be supported.  This controller will also be able to support a wider range of hard-wired FGI device types planned for future availability.

Configuration and Control Approach

Home automation installations are often strong on "remote control" capabilities, but underutilize their "automation" potential.  This is at least partially due to the fact that current controllers tend to fall into two categories:  those oriented toward professional installers that can accomplish a great deal but are complex to configure and those oriented toward the Do-It-Yourself HA enthusiasts that are simple to configure but have very limited capabilities.

Several installer oriented HA controllers are configured by generating a list of "IF-THEN" rules, presented as a listing that appears similar to a software programming language.  Some people find this intimidating, and it does little to help the user visualize how the system will work.  Sometimes this rules list is generated through dialog interaction, which is helpful while initially entering the configuration rules but in the end comes down to the same result.  Additionally, the "rule" languages often have limited options which constrain the installer.  They often allow only "event driven" rule specifications, which requires multiple rules to accomplish a desired task, further complicating the resulting "rules" list.  These issues may discourage some installers from creatively unleashing the full power of home automation upon their clients and explain why vendors report that professional system installations use an average of only 25 automation "rules".

In contrast, some Do-It-Yourself oriented controllers try to deliver a simple, easy to use configuration method by being simplistic in the capabilities provided.  This simplistic approach can make it easy for a first-time home automator to implement a small system with some basic functionality such as timer control of a light, and possibly some simple macros which sequentially perform a list of actions when triggered.  However, installations based on these simplistic systems do not have the potential to grow into larger scale sophisticated home automation systems.

FSD's philosophy of HA controller configuration provides a more intuitive approach to implementing substantial automation functionality.  Beyond the initial installation, it enables a system to evolve incrementally as a homeowner dreams up additional things to automate, increasing the level of automation capabilities and enhancing homeowner satisfaction with and pride in their system.

Examples of how some functions are configured follow to illustrate the general concepts behind FSD's operation configuration approach.

Protocol Super-Bridge Configuration

To configure a basic FSD Bridge Controller that links up to 16 X10 devices having consecutive addresses with up to 16 UPB devices one would first add a Super Bridge virtual device to the system, then select "Configure Device" to bring up its device configuration dialog (second dialog layer shown in Figure 4).  Bridge assignments for each group of 4 addresses are shown in the list box at the top of the dialog.  Selecting one of the groups brings up another dialog (the front dialog shown), from which one can select the "From" device protocol (e.g. X10) and the starting address for the group, and the "To" protocol (e.g. UPB) and its group starting address

For X10 devices, one can also select among the different extended command protocol variations used by incompatible device manufactures, and whether to use or respond to X10 extended code Group commands.  For UPB devices, one can select whether to use or respond to UPB Direct commands or UPB Link commands.  One can also select whether the Super Bridge should bridge lamp module dimmer commands across the protocols, or just bridge ON/OFF type commands.  (If dimmer bridging is enabled, the device control dialog box (third dialog shown) will also show slider bar controls to allow dimmer operation from the computer interface.)

For many protocol bridge applications, this is all the controller configuration that will be needed.

Configuring Operations

For configuring operations ("rules") between individual devices and with logical combinations of device states, and when using timer devices, variables, and macro device types, operations between device elements are configured by selecting "Configure Operations" from either the "From" or the "To" device.  This brings up a tab control dialog showing operation assignments affecting each of the device's elements, as shown in Figure 5 (second dialog).

Selecting the "Add" button, or selecting a previously configured operation, will bring up a dialog to select the type of operation to apply and to set appropriate device associations for the selected operation.  In the example shown, a SET_MOMENTARY_PAIR operation has been selected, so the dialog has entries for one other device to associate with this operation.  If the selected operation was for a logical combination of two device states, fields would be shown for selecting each of the two associated devices.

Multiple operations can be associated with a device.  For example, a "Bedtime" switch in the master bedroom might be programmed to turn OFF all downstairs lights, and to turn ON a light in the children's bathroom and set it to a 20% dim level.  When turned ON this "Bedtime" switch might turn ON a dimmed downstairs hallway light and the kitchen light to facilitate a midnight snack run.  In this case, viewing the "OFF" tab will show a list of operations on all the downstairs lights and the children's bathroom light (assuming no X10 Group or UPB Link commands are used), and viewing the "ON" tab will show the downstairs hall and kitchen lights.

Similarly, selecting "Configure Operations" from the downstairs hall light device will list the operations from all the switches, timers, macro devices, and any other devices which affect the hall light.

Configuring the Floor-Layout View User Interface

When using an FSD controller for more than a protocol bridge, having a hierarchical floor-layout oriented graphical approach to interacting with the system at run-time may be desirable.  If so, the graphical view needs to be customized with the floor plans for the particular house, device icon locations, and the associations between device icons and automation devices.

FSD includes a graphics layout editing tool with the controllers, so the installer or homeowner can customize their interface as desired.  After entering the floor plans and locating device icons on the floor layouts, selecting a device icon from within the graphics editor brings up a dialog box (shown in Figure 6) from which the device protocol, type, and user's device name can be selected.

At run-time, clicking on the device icon in the floor layout viewer brings up a user interaction device dialog for the associated device, as shown in Figures 4 and 5 above (bottom dialog in each figure).  These dialogs have a default picture representing the device type.  The user run-time experience can be further customized by replacing these default pictures with photos of the actual appliances in the home or any other personalized pictures.

Remote Access and Configuration

The automation software suite supplied with FSD controllers includes remote access support, enabling monitoring, control, and/or configuration across a LAN, wireless LAN, or the Internet.  All purchasers of FSD controllers are licensed to install the FSD automation software on multiple computers for remote access.  Having a static IP address is nice but not required, since FSD has a controller directory lookup service available for finding dynamically assigned FSD controller IP addresses.

In addition to providing remote access to the home's automation system operation, this feature can be useful during system installation and configuration.  During the initial installation, an installer can configure the system from a wireless laptop or tablet PC, so he can wander around the house during the configuration process to see things work without having to run back and forth to a central computer location.  Afterwards, the installer can make small configuration changes remotely over the Internet, reducing the cost and time commitment of driving out to the customer's home.  While an installer will not want to completely eliminate reasons for maintaining direct customer contact, reducing the cost and convenience barriers to tweaking the system functionality will ultimately enhance the benefits of home automation and customer satisfaction.

Reducing the need for on-site configuration might also enable an installer to economically support smaller HA installations in less expensive homes, where cost factors prevent the normal installation practices used in more expensive larger installations.

For the Do-It-Yourself enthusiast, the remote monitoring and configuration capabilities may enable broader application of his interest.  For example, one could install some home automation capabilities in a distantly located elderly parent's home and remotely monitor and support the installation as needed.

Hard-wired Devices

There are new, simpler, less expensive hard-wired approaches that have much to offer hybrid installations, particularly in new construction.  The FSD Bridge Controller and new Bridge Controller Plus model support one simple, wired to the next closest, highly robust, hard-wired HA protocol that combines low wiring cost, low device cost, and simple configuration. In the FGI device networking approach, each device is wired to the next device with a single 4-wire cable in a daisy chain or branched configuration, and each device knows its location on the network, simplifying both configuration and diagnostics.  This is particularly simple to implement in homes which also want hard-wired security systems.

Future Directions

FSD plans to add bridge and controller support for additional protocols, including Z-Wave and INSTEON.  FSD also plans to introduce additional FGI compatible hard-wired device products, including home automation oriented devices and devices oriented primarily towards commercial and industrial applications.  Stay tuned!


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