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Analysis Smart Home

HomeKit gets a brand new suite of smart home sensors

With Fibaro's three new products, Siri can alert you to home emergencies.

Apple's HomeKit platform is about to take a small but critical step forward. Smart home tech developer Fibaro has unveiled a HomeKit-compatible flood sensor ($70, or about £55 or AU$95), door and window sensor ($60, or about £50 or AU$80), and motion sensor (also $70) for the end of 2016. Each of them will use low energy Bluetooth to communicate.

Although the partnership seems minor, it represents an important expansion into new territory for HomeKit -- an expansion vital to its continued success in a burgeoning market.

Integrating sensing devices with voice activated platforms has taken a long time to develop for a few reasons. First, users don't often send commands to flood or motion sensors; the sensors send alerts to users. And for now, Alexa, the Google Assistant and Siri don't feature vocal push alerts, making that device-to-user communication difficult.

Fibaro and Apple are hoping to surmount this challenge by depending on the Home app more than Siri. You'll be able to ask Siri whether your basement is flooding thanks to the new leak sensor, but most of the time smart home sensors are meant to stay in the background. Non-voice controlled smart-home systems have almost exclusively relied upon apps, push notifications or text messages to alert users of emergencies, and Siri still can't top any of these methods.

The new partners also have a second challenge to face: most sensors rely on batteries, making the energy drain of Wi-Fi untenable. That's why systems like SmartThings, with hubs that translate low energy radio frequencies into a language your phone can understand, have had the corner on small, battery-powered devices for so long.

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Fibaro's solution to this challenge is Bluetooth Low Energy, which won't drain batteries quickly, and also communicates directly with phones. Bluetooth comes with its own limitations though. The Fibaro sensors have to be within close proximity to communicate via Bluetooth with users' phones, unless an Apple TV or iPad is around to translate the radio waves to Wi-Fi and allow for remote control (much like the conventional smart-home hub does).

Apple and Fibaro seem to have addressed, albeit imperfectly, the problems of integrating sensing devices with voice controlled systems. How the sensors themselves perform remains to be seen. But this partnership has bigger implications for the market at large.

fibarofloodsensor-product-photos-11.jpg

Fibaro's new flood sensor looks nearly identical to this original Z-Wave unit.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The three voice controlled platforms, Apple HomeKit, Amazon Echo and Google Home, are all vying for control of the market that Echo has dominated by default over the past year. Google just announced imminent partnerships with multiple smart-home developers, and Apple promised over a hundred new device integrations by the end of 2016. Echo has kept up a steady stream of new integrations over the past year, and will certainly continue to do so in the near future.

The message is clear, all three voice-controlled smart-home platforms are gearing up for a competitive 2017, and hopefully, users will benefit from the increasingly fierce rivalries.

Editors' note: The original headline to this article incorrectly stated Fibaro's was the first suite of sensing devices for HomeKit. Although Fibaro's devices add new sensing capabilities to HomeKit, Elgato's Eve devices already feature temperature and motion sensing.