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Make it Rain: Q&A with Skydrop on Building Smart Home Apps

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The Internet of Things has been a hot topic recently. With the rise of wearables and other automated devices, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many people will have connected devices inside of their homes in the near future (if they don’t already.) Products like Nest have already begun to convince the market of their value by enabling users to control the temperature of their homes from their mobile devices, no matter where they are.

Another interesting player in this emerging space is Skydrop, which provides customers with automated sprinkler systems that turn on and off based on the weather forecast.

We caught up with Dan Wilson, a lead engineer from Skydrop, to learn more about how mobile technology fits into their product, why they’re using Appcelerator and what the future holds for Skydrop and home automation more generally.

1. Tell us a little bit about Skydrop. How did the idea for a smart sprinkler system come about?

Skydrop was born out of the simple idea that sprinklers should be easier. Clark Endrizzi, one of our co-founders, is an avid gardener. He was growing frustrated with his sprinkler controller when trying to setup and tweak his irrigation system. He started out by trying to control the sprinklers remotely, but soon realized the potential for real innovation.
Skydrop Controller Zone

Because water in his area is expensive, he consulted several experts about how much to water his property and got different answers from different people. He realized that many users (and even some experts) don’t know how to water their lawns properly.

He came up with a solution to the problem of not knowing how much or when to water: a smartphone-connected sprinkler controller that eventually turned into Skydrop.

Skydrop does more than just automatically delay watering when it’s raining. It also takes into account local weather conditions and your property’s specific landscape conditions in order to deliver a custom recipe to optimally water each zone of your landscape. Skydrop calculates the water-loss in your soil and only waters when necessary — saving water and money while also promoting healthy plants and lawn.

All while looking incredibly cool and sexy.

2. How does mobile technology fit into the Skydrop product?

Mobile technology is absolutely vital to Skydrop. It’s our primary interface with the device. Although we have a web interface and an on-device display, most of our users interact with skydrop using smartphones or tablets. For everything from setting up your system and doing valve maintenance to casually viewing your watering history, the mobile app is a great, simple way to manage and monitor your skydrop controller.

3. Why did you choose Appcelerator for your development projects?

Skydrop Mobile was built with Appcelerator mainly because of the cross-platform capabilities. We investigated a few other cross-platform solutions, but found the native component support within Appcelerator provided the best experience for our users. In addition, our engineers have a more sophisticated knowledge of javascript than Objective-C and Java. The skydrop cloud infrastructure is all built in NodeJS, so Appcelerator’s javascript API just made sense.

4. What was the most challenging part of developing apps for multiple platforms and devices?

Appcelerator helped eliminate a lot of the challenges with multiple platforms, but the biggest challenge for us was dealing with the myriad of Android devices and versions. Genymotion helped quite a bit, but it can’t cover all the available combinations we felt needed testing.

5. Are your apps using APIs to power the automatic watering schedule? Any other interesting data sources that your apps leverage?

Skydrop Controller History

The apps communicate with our cloud services through custom APIs which then relay messages to the skydrop controller and vice versa. We also leverage data from Weather Underground to use in our evapotranspiration algorithms.

6. How do you see “smart home” technology like Skydrop progressing in the next few years?

Home Automation is a very hot market right now. In the next few years, we will likely see more and more “smart” home devices. Integration and interoperability will become key features with connective tissue apps like IFTTT technology becoming commonplace as well as “hub” technologies like Apple’s HomeKit. We are finally starting to see the dream of the Jetsons smart home being fulfilled. We just need Rosie the maid to top it all off.

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