Watching from Afar

It was a weird feeling as I prepared to shut down our house for a six-week overseas trip.

I have a fairly elaborate consumer Internet of Things (IoT) setup with over 150 connected devices and 18 different systems: solar panels, security systems, power sensors, door locks, lighting controls, weather monitoring, temperature and humidity sensors, a Sonos music system, DropCams, a Rachio system to water the yard, Nest thermostats and smoke detectors. And all of them were going to be on their own, monitoring my house. Without me nearby to fix anything if it broke.

Why was I concerned? In this age of connected devices, should I have felt more confident than ever that my house would be fine without me? In a word, no. The system is pretty fragile due to a lack of robustness and autonomy in consumer IoT products. But I had finally gotten it — with the devices performing more or less as intended — and now it was time to shut it all down.

My wife and I were about to embark on a 6-week trip to Australia and Southeast Asia

I had no choice, though. One of the benefits my company offers is a paid sabbatical every four years of service. My wife and I were about to embark on a 6-week trip to Australia and Southeast Asia. We’d have wi-fi access most, but not all, of the trip. We had taken similar trips before and knew how to shut down our house and set things up while we were away. But my experience showed that once I got everything stable, perturbing the system was asking for trouble — something was likely to break.

Even though my house should essentially be autonomous, we asked a neighbor, who had watched our house in the past, over to give him instructions of what to do if something went wrong. It turns out that if the systems were functioning normally, we’d have a pretty good idea of what was happening in the house and did not need them to do much except watch for packages at the front door and put them in the garage. One new thing I had to do was show them how to reboot routers and some critical devices in the event they went rogue.

The last task before leaving was to decide what systems to leave running (DropCams, Nests, rachio, solar power, and various monitors — yes) and what to shut down (Tivos (except for 1 to record our favorite shows), Sonos, etc.). I also changed our lighting schemes to be less elaborate and automated. We wanted to minimize our house’s power use while traveling, so we should down all nonessential systems. My trepidation was thinking about getting such a fragile, complex system back up and running when we returned.

Confident that we could monitor what was going on in the house and to a limited degree, control it from the other side of the world, I decided that our trip would be an interesting experiment. A sabbatical in the name of science!

So we left and trusted that everything would work.

We did not have a computer; I chose to travel light and just brought an iPad and iPhone. All of the systems had apps to control them. I had to take a file of passwords with me because, of course, each app had its own account and the apps had an annoying tendency to occasionally forget their login credentials.

A few days into the trip, we settled into a comfortable house-monitoring routine. We were eight hours behind and a day ahead of San Francisco in Australia, but got used to to the rhythm of the house. Our various systems reported different events, such as watering the lawn or motion detected at the front door.

Over the first couple of weeks, I got used to the house’s routine: lights on early in the morning, off at sunrise; lights on at sunset and off later in the evening. I watched the weather and my Rachio watering the lawn. I monitored my solar panels and energy consumption. With nobody home, our energy base load was pretty low so it was fun to see our solar panels producing more power than we consumed, especially because we could sell the unused power back to PG&E.

Humans in the loop perturbing the system are what causes instability

A number of devices sent notifications and I quickly got used to their rhythms. The systems were remarkably stable — unlike when we are home. That led me to believe that humans in the loop perturbing the system are what causes instability. However, that is the reality of life and there is still no excuse for system instability.

The DropCams, in particular, sent notices when something changed. Often, it was the changing of the sun or the wind blowing something around, but once in a while it was an Amazon package getting dropped off. About halfway through the trip, I got security alerts that our alarm system had been disarmed — but checked the cameras and found that it was just our neighbor, checking on the house. Another time one of the cameras sent a motion alert but I recognized the gardener going about his work in the back yard.

After a while, it became comforting to get messages from the house. I could correlate things like a light sensor indicating a light was on with a DropCam actually showing the light on. If it was a mistake, I could turn the light off from halfway around the world. Pretty wild.

Even though I could not do a lot if something went wrong from a distance, it was comforting to be able to watch the rhythms of the house. It was amazing that the house just went on without us — carrying on its functions automatically.

Maybe there is something to this Internet of Things after all.