IoT-based smart and secure home automation

August 7, 2018 Sanjeev Sharma, Mentor Graphics, a Siemens Business

A variety of smart home automation solutions are being developed nowadays, but most of them lack the potential for seamless integration into an already functioning home environment aa well as security. To bridge the gap between consumer and expert while allowing for integration into any existing home environment without physical alteration to the building, a modular and flexible smart home automation solution with seamless integration potential is required.

This research covers the following objectives:

  • Come up with a modular and secure Smart Home Solution with Mentor Embedded Runtime for IoT
  • Easy to Configure and install without experts
  • Use freely available IoT communication software protocol

Smart home automation systems (SHAS) are the residential extension of building automation. It is automation of the complete home or household and may include control and automation of lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), appliances, and security, and multiple other systems found in the home environment. Interest in the field of smart home automation has increased greatly in recent years due to advances in Machine to Machine (M2M) communications networks and a much higher affordability and simplicity through the emergence of smartphones and tablets.

A smart home automation system, by definition, is the integration of electrical devices (including actuation of non-electrical devices such as blinds) and the monitoring and control of the home environment through an intelligent system, or by a user either locally or remotely over a communication medium, such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and coordinated by a computer. Within this connected environment, tasks can be made more intuitive and effective. The home network handles all communication and a user is given access to the system via a personal computer, smartphone, or tablet from either within the home or from a remote location over the Internet. The integration of information technologies and the home environment allows systems and appliances to function with convenience, energy efficiency, and safety benefits.

The overall smart home architecture therefore consists of the devices and appliances within the home connected to the home network, the user and the industry service providers.

Research problem

Existing smart home automation systems are uniquely designed to suit specific consumers home environments and requirements. These systems are complex in design, not flexible enough to meet the custom requirements, and are often embedded into the physical structures of the home.

In existing smart home automation systems, safety and security is an important consideration for the consumer and end users. Repeatedly, studies have revealed that devices designed to automate the home have serious vulnerabilities. Many devices have weak password policies and do not protect against man-in-the-middle attacks, according to an HP survey of 10 off-the-shelf home security systems. Others do not prevent access to the device’s debugging interface, which could allow easy hacking of the device, according to an April study by code-security firm Veracode. And, if an attacker is able to gain access to the device, almost all devices could be easily compromised and turned into a Trojan Horse, according to a study by security firm Synack. In fact, it only took between 5 and 20 minutes to find a way to compromise each device once the researchers unpacked the hardware.

Proposed solution

To solve the problems discussed earlier, a seamlessly integratable, very secure, reconfigurable and expandable SHAS is proposed. To serve as a platform upon which research can continue it should make use of Mentor Embedded Linux (MEL) (Figure 1), which enables IoT edge devices that require a rich application environment and access to open source IP and developer community. It should also allow various connectivity support for a comprehensive set of wireless and wired transports and protocols.

[Figure 1 | Mentor Embedded Linux]

The system will run on the i.MX6 SABRE Series (SABRE Lite and Nitrogen6X boards only) and LayerScape LS1021A BSPs. Compatibility with other boards is expected to be available in future releases.

[Figure 2 | I.MX6 SABRE Series Reference platform]

The rest of the system is designed around the i.MX6 SABRE, which uses a modular slave/master system design. The master and all slave nodes communicate through Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Bluetooth low energy (BLE), or USB 2.0/3.0 for IPv4/IPv6 based networks. Its modular and highly structured organization provides for the ability to install additional software protocols as requirements change.

A user gains access to the system either locally or remotely over the Internet. The explosive growth of smart IoT connected devices with the proliferation of cloud-based services places new requirements on developers to protect assets from software attacks. Mentor provides application cloud backend services support that can be licensed or provided as a service.

The user interfaces are developed as a locally hosted web server or through any application installed on smartphone, allowing the system to be controlled from almost any device that is equipped with a browser.

A simple representation can be seen in Figure 3.. The red arrows represent user side communication that is only transmitted between the master node and the user device, whereas the blue arrows represent slave side communication that is only transmitted between the master node and slave nodes.

[Figure 3 | Diagram depicting entire system layout]

Home automation architecture and application areas

Mentor Embedded Runtime for IoT is the best fit for the general home automation architecture. The proposed architecture uses only two types of modules: Supervisor Engine (SE) and Control Engine (CE), which are interconnected by a communications network supported by MEL.

As can be seen in Fig 1.2, the system has a distributed nature and is organized in a two-level hierarchy. SEs are the high level modules and they perform, essentially, supervision tasks. CEs are low level modules that Interact with the physical world through input and output devices.    

[Figure 4 | System architecture]

Connectivity for home networks

A key element of the proposed architecture is the communications network that interconnects the various system modules. This network is of paramount importance as it may affect several characteristics of the system such as performance, flexibility, and cost. IoT networks must be scalable in order to support the dynamic nature of the IoT (as devices are added and removed from the network).

Mentor’s solution includes connectivity support for a comprehensive set of wireless and wired transports and protocols, including:

  1.     Ethernet
  2.     IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n
  3.     Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
  4.     IEEE 802.15.4
  5.     6LoWPAN
  6.     CoAP
  7.     MQTT
  8.     XMPP
  9.     HTTPS

We wanted the network to be simple to allow its implementation on the CEs without the need to add any specific hardware or increase significantly the processing and memory requirements of those modules. Without these considerations, their cost could increase dramatically and the same could happen to the overall system, as CEs are numerous.

Hardware and software support

The IoT is developing at a rapid pace and finding the right IoT development hardware for your product is daunting task. By selecting Mentor Embedded Runtime for IoT, you can save lot of time and money because there are various Board Support Packages available for popular reference designs from major semiconductor vendors. In addition to this, Mentor Graphics integration Services team can integrate MEL with your custom hardware and tune and optimize MEL to meet your requirements.

Safety and security

Safety and security is an important consideration in the eyes of the end user – not only the network security of the system, but the level of security the system can provide for the home and its occupants. In research problem mentioned above, security is the main concern.

Mentor Embedded Runtime for IoT has a plethora of security options like SE-Linux and SMACK, which can reduce risks of cyber security threats and attacks. It’s also important to build a firewall for security purposes. Mentor Graphics has partnered with Icon Labs to integrate its Floodgate security products with Mentor Graphics’ Nucleus RTOS and Mentor Embedded Linux.

User interfacing

Home automation infrastructures are generally quite complex due to the variety of USB, BLE devices, sensors and actuators involved in the network. One of the challenges of designing an interface between the user and the system is doing it in such a way that it is made easy for the user to associate the physical devices within their household to the applicable elements within the user interface.

The rise of smartphones over the decades has set a new mobile precedent for how we think about interacting with the internet. But is pinching, squinting, zooming and typing into tiny keyboards really the "connected" user experience we've all been waiting for? No.

Sanjeev Sharma is an Engineering Manager at Mentor Graphics, a Siemens Business, in the Embedded Software ABU Division. He is a PMP-certified professional with over 12 years of experience in software industry, largely dedicated to embedded software.

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