Honeywell Security’s CTO on the growth of wireless alarm systems

Earlier this week, Honeywell announced that it had produced its 50 millionth wireless transmitter, and many of those have been for security applications in the company’s “5800 series” of security devices. caught up with Honeywell Security’s Chief Technology Officer Ken Addy to talk about wireless technology for security and life safety systems. The overall concept of wireless security systems is that installing companies would no longer need to run a wire from a door sensor back to the panel. The installer would simply install the sensor (and there are now a wide array of wireless sensors from companies like Honeywell and others in this space) and the receiving panel, run a recognition process so that the panel learns that the sensor is part of its associated devices, and presto, they have a panel which can now monitor and receive signals from the sensor.

What we found when speaking to Ken is that Honeywell’s production of wireless transmitters matchers overall wireless growth in the security industry. According to Addy, he’s seen a gradual uptick in wireless security system applications over the last decade. That uptick has especially ramped up in recent years, and Addy says roughly half of today’s home security systems use some element of wireless technology – whether that’s a wireless sensor, a remote keypad, or a wireless arm/disarm keyfob.

Most of the wireless growth has been in residential security systems, said Addy, who notes that the ability to quickly install a system – with a limited amount of wiring – means the installing company’s job is faster and less intrusive to the homeowner. That, in turn, he said, means the job ties up the installing company for less time, allowing them to handle more projects, and create even more RMR streams.

“In the past, installing companies would talk about number of days per installation,” said Addy. “They now talk about the number of installations per day.”

The wireless technology is less prominent in security systems for commercial installations – some of that has to do with more conservative buyers who are slower to adopt new technologies like wireless. Sometimes also the commercial environment, which often involves larger spaces than the typical American home, puts limitations on wireless technologies in terms of range -- i.e., a sensor at a far-end of a commercial property might not have the wireless range to reach the receiving device. But with improvements in range and more increased user comfort with wireless technologies, Addy said he expects to see growth for wireless systems in commercial security applications.

Underlying technology driving growth

There have been vast improvements in the technological underpinnings of wireless technologies. According to Addy, they’ve watched battery technologies improve significantly. Honeywell, said Addy, typically uses Lithium-type batteries, a technology area which has been pushed along by the strong use of batteries in the consumer electronics world in devices like iPod music players and cellular phones. Today, the company is finding that heavier-use devices like PIR motion sensors and smoke detectors can get five years of use before a battery needs to be switched – though that timeline depends on the individual device and the amount of usage. Simple “switch” type sensors like door contacts last as long as the shelf-life of the battery – a time frame that could be 10 years in some cases.

“Battery technology is continuing to develop, and as a manufacturer we are always looking for the smallest, longest life battery,” said Addy. “It's really surprising how much activity there is in battery development. Now with lithium chemistries for batteries, they have become very efficient, and every year the battery manufacturers we use show us new efficiencies they have created.”

Matching the advances in battery technology has been the improvement of micro-controllers and circuit designs that are incredibly efficient.

“The currents these things run is down in the micro-amps now, and we run all the circuits from those micro-amp currents,” said Addy.

Overcoming wireless interference and security concerns

One of the common questions about wireless is reliability. A security system owner wants the peace of mind to know that if an intruder breaks into their home, the PIR mounted in the corner of their living room will properly detect the intruder and properly report that detection to the panel which can subsequently be reported to the alarm monitoring station for police response. That concern of reliability brings up the question of interference – especially as today’s homes feature more and more electronic and wireless RF emitting devices like microwave ovens, cordless telephones, wireless Internet routers and cell phones.

Fortunately for the security alarm industry, the wireless security devices are governed quite closely in terms of the frequencies they may use. According to Addy, the devices transmit wirelessly in lower UHF frequencies.

These wireless security and sensing devices from Addy’s business unit at Honeywell fall under FCC part 15 approval. It is a shared band licensed by the government for low-power devices like these sensors, keypads and wireless alarm fobs. The primary user of their frequencies – around 345 Mhz – is typically a government or military agency, and then commercial companies are the second, share user on this frequency band.

“It (FCC Part 15) limits the amount of power and on-air time that a certain device can have,” said Addy. “Its specifications reduce mutual interference between bands.”

Being very clearly specified in terms of power and on-air time (basically, the amount of time a device can be broadcasting a signal) reduces interference and this frequency usages separates these wireless security devices from other popular frequency bands like the 900 Mhz band (often used for cordless telephones) and the 2.4 Ghz band which is often used for wireless routers and susceptible to emissions from microwave ovens.

In terms of reliability, security is another strong concern. These wireless devices use device matching such that the receiving devices has to recognize the correct serial number from the signal-emitting device. Those are set into the receiver during the installation process, and then are checked whenever a signal is sent from the device using a cyclical redundancy check (CRC) – a simple circuit process that encodes or decodes and checks the data to ensure there is no interference and that the signal is not being spoofed from another device with a different serial number. In addition to the CRC, Addy noted that there have been increases in the technology which allow for many, many more unique device ID numbers than in the past.

“If you went back 20 years, they [the device ID numbers] were done with bit switches in the devices, so maybe you had only 64 or 128 device numbers. It was possible then that you could have two devices reporting the same number.”

Today such devices would be using an application specific integrated circuit (ASIC), which have grown more and more complex, thus eliminating the possibility of two devices appearing to a receiver as the same device. Today there are millions of combinations thanks to advances in these ASICs.

Where to use wireless

Technology advances aside, security system dealers have been finding more and more ways to use these wireless devices. Addy noted that an area of very promising growth for wireless is in outdoor sensors like motion sensors at a driveway entrance, where it would be virtually impossible to place wired devices due to the costs associated with powering the devices and running communication cables back to the central location.

The growth for wireless systems will also come in retrofit applications, where snaking wiring through existing, insulated and sheet-rocked walls is a chore. Historical applications are also a growth area, said Addy, since alarm dealers may not have permission or even wish to bore into a historical structure to install a security system.nOwners of older homes and buildings may also elect to use wireless to avoid ripping into walls which could have asbestos materials in them.

A final growth area for wireless security devices is in asset protection, where tampering or vibration-type sensors could be placed on semi-permanent assets to detect if they are being moved, removed or tampered with.

What the future might hold for wireless-based alarm systems

Clearly the wireless technology is going to be a core part of security systems being installed in the future, but also asked Honeywell’s Ken Addy what might change in the technology and applications. Addy felt that one of the areas for technology change could be that more of the devices might support 2-way communication – rather than simply being a transmitter or a receiver. This could potentially allow for applications like monitoring the status of these sensors (basically the panel transceiver would ask “Sensor, are your OK and working?” and the sensor replies “Yes, working fine/status is good.”) or to send system updates to remote devices. He also said that the systems could link in different wireless systems such that a PERS type of sensor/button would wirelessly transmit an alarm to the panel, which could then open up (on a different frequency) a voice channel for the PERS alarm station to communicate with the individual. Finally, said Addy, “We might send more wireless data – we’re interested in wireless voice and wireless video. The opportunities to send more data are going to change in the future.”

In the end, though, it comes back to the issue of cost and being able to do more jobs in less time for most security installing companies. And that means lower costs for your residential and commercial alarm system customers, too.

“I'm sure there will always be a few holdouts, but in terms of ease of install, length of battery life, there are not a lot of reasons to not use wireless these days,” concluded Addy. “The tradeoff between the time it takes to run wires around a home and the extra cost of wireless devices favors wireless.”