Piper home security on a book shelf

Russell Ure: home automation entrepreneur

When he discovered that there was no home automation and security system on the market to suit his requirements, systems engineer, entrepreneur and outspoken commentator Russell Ure set out to design one for himself.

If you've ever wanted to visually check in with base to make sure that the building isn't on fire or your neighbours haven't popped around for an impromptu rave while you're on the road, then you're not alone. Russell Ure wondered such things many times, especially when his newly grown-up daughter moved to the big city and found that traditional home security companies weren't interested in people who couldn't pay whopping retainers and were swimming downstream in the rental sector.

Talking with Ure, who is EVP of Icontrol Networks in Canada, it quickly emerges that situations such as the above do not suit his temperament. A natural rebel, maverick, iconoclast – any of these terms will do – he doesn't like the idea of the regular guy being treated as something less than equal by people he appears to hold in an amused version of very slight disdain. He says: "I realised that security companies ignore this sector of the market for two main reasons. First, they don't allow installations and second, the people occupying this sector tend to be very mobile. And they're not going to sign up to multi-year contracts. So while the existing security companies didn't see a market worth investing in, I saw an opportunity. The technology was evolving very quickly. You can develop hardware, develop proof-of-concept, and get it into production in such a short period of time as compared with 10 years ago, when it would take several years to achieve this."

In fact, what Ure developed was Piper, a home security and automation system that the 57-year-old British entrepreneur developed to fit into a niche occupied by 30 million households in the US alone. Early in 2014 the Piper concern was bought out by Icontrol, where Ure now heads up the Piper Business Unit. The sales literature describes the product as a single unit designed to provide home automation at low cost. Ure explains that "you plug it in, it connects to your Wi-Fi, has a security system built into it, a camera, and your smartphone acts as a controller. It's common to see all these aspects of a design in separate units. But with Piper it all comes in one".

As we sit drinking coffee in Mayfair, Ure chats to his dog in Canada via the Piper interface on his iPhone, switches on the lights and interacts with his house on the lake on the other side of the planet. "You can set it up in such a way that if somebody enters your apartment at night when you're sleeping the lights go on. So it's a smart-home controller, a home security system.

"But of course, any home security system that can't see into your place from outside is very weak, and relies on a third-party call centre to call you and tell you that there's a problem. That requires a monthly fee and, in my opinion, flies in the face of what people really want in a small living space. We designed a system around some of these basic premises and took advantage of technology paradigm shifts that allowed us to merge several technologies to make something new."

Ure compares this bringing together of separate technologies with the evolution of the smartphone. "It wasn't just a phone any more. It was an Internet browser, a GPS system, an MP3 player. It's the same thought process behind what we are doing here." 

The main reason for wanting to monitor your living space while you're not there is simply peace of mind. "There are a number of different facets to this. First, there is the security of your personal belongings. Then you may have concerns such as the welfare of your pets."

Ure goes on to describe that you can check-in on your domestic animals while you're at work; essentially a 21st-century baby-monitoring system. But there are environmental monitoring aspects to Piper. It can alert you to changes in temperature and humidity and other parameters defined by whether the system is in a mode that understands you are in your house, temporarily away from home or, indeed, on holiday.

Simulation lessons

Conceptually, Piper owes something to Ure's background in simulation technology, particularly a helmet-mounted display he helped to develop as part of a Comanche attack helicopter simulator. "It was eye-tracked, head-tracked and I suppose it probably looks old-fashioned now, but a lot of those concepts – especially in terms of the camera system – I used when developing Piper."

Ure did his apprenticeship working as a design engineer on flight simulators at Rediffusion. Upon finishing his apprenticeship, he describes himself as being "pretty much footloose. I had a desire to see the world and ended up getting a job in Canada where I moved to at the age of 24 with £300 in my pocket, no possessions apart from one suitcase of clothes. I worked for a flight simulator company in Montréal called CAE and lived next door to a Hells Angel, which is quite an eye-opener".

With a degree from Brighton Polytechnic and a background established in flight simulation engineering, Ure became a specialist in systems integration. "It was always about working with other engineers and helping them to put things together. My job has always been pretty much as an engineering guy who can glue things together." While working in commercial flight simulation Ure received an offer to work in the military sector on submarine tracking, using sonar buoys that could detect – from the acoustic signature – the type of submarine that was in the water. He says that this experience was to stay with him and influence him for many years to come.

Ure cheerfully describes himself as something of a corporate rebel or misfit, and so it was only matter of time before he found working for large corporations incompatible with his ambition to be successful and make money. "I got very tired with having all these great ideas, and yet there being nobody to listen to them or take them seriously. I was working in places where it simply took too long to make decisions and as a result I was missing opportunities. When you feel that way – and the feeling gets stronger – you need to move into position of more control."

Describing himself today as an entrepreneur, Ure thinks that this has come about as a result of being able to use both the logical and intuitive parts of his brain. He is not a psychologist and he admits that his self-analysis doesn't have much basis in the discipline of psychology. But he does think that engineers working in large corporations are prevented from using their intuition.

Logic plays an important part in developing a successful career as an engineer, he says, but to branch out on your own and to develop successful systems in the role of the entrepreneur requires other personal characteristics. There could be more engineers in the entrepreneurial space, he says, if only they could "cut loose and learn to think like entrepreneurs.

"The big problem is that engineers are being stifled because they tend to work in environments where there is no incentive to grasp opportunity, while sensing that the future could be different. If you are blocked in like that, then you are unlikely to make a move further in your career."

Ure says that while it is a common assumption that the entrepreneur is motivated by the desire to make money, achieve fame or bring a product to market, the entrepreneur is actually motivated by "the opportunity to create something new. There are lessons to be drawn from being an engineer while also being a rebel who is not content with the status quo".

Mission to disrupt

The big question for Ure is, for all his background in military 'black ops', why on earth has he developed something so superficially mundane as a remotely operated camera for making sure that your dog is OK while you're at work? Most people would be insulted by such a question, but Ure is amused by what he thinks is my naivety.

"OK, it works like this," he says patiently. "The security companies want to charge you 50 bucks a month and an installation charge of 50 bucks, which is amortised over, say, three years. They're not really serving the market in any meaningful way and they are prime for disruption. My mission was to disrupt something. I don't know what the right expression is, but I wanted to see something topple. These companies are in their ivory towers, they are fat and happy at the consumer's expense. And so it was time to do something about it."

Despite Ure not having lived in the UK for several decades, he is a huge fan of British innovation. "I still meet people in our field in the United States and they all seem to be the same. They have a really key position in a corporation. They are the brains behind someone who is far seeing, or maybe a bit quirky. They work very well in teams but as individuals are not very strong."

Ure goes on to explain his experience of working with Russian engineers, who he described as amazingly technical people who are often the product of an education system that nurtures individual success. "Now contrast that with the American system that tends to nurture group success and what you have is two opposite ends of the spectrum."

Ure believes that the British way of doing things allows designers, engineers and entrepreneurs to find themselves occupying ground somewhere between the two extremes.

He admits that the idea of Model A (Americans in teams) contrasting with Model B (Russians working as individuals) is a hugely stylised simplification, but it helps him to understand why Model C (Brits exploiting both styles) is more successful. "Looking at this from the perspective of an ex-pat, I can see that the Brits are very good at taking the best bits out of both models in order to come up with the goods." The key factor for Ure is that the British way of doing things does not demote individual performance, while there is the promotion of team elements. "This is where I think British business is stronger than American. It's my experience that Americans talk a lot but they don't often cut to the chase."

Such outspoken stereotypes may or may not be entirely helpful, but a general theme that Ure has witnessed emerging is that "over the past 20 years the general level of collaboration between British industry and Europe is huge. Britain came into the union late compared with some of the other core countries such as France and Germany, but I don't see any evidence that British engineering is subservient to them".

Meanwhile back in Ure's adopted home – North America – he is reassured by what he sees as an increase of graduates in Canada and the United States going into engineering. "There is an engineering shortage at the moment, and that's due to the fact that when the economic bubble burst back in 2000 a lot of manufacturing companies went into a tailspin, with young people going to university starting to think that engineering wasn't the place to be. But that was largely down to short-sightedness, and today we can see that people seem to want to go into this field.

"One of the reasons for this is that although graduate engineers may start off on what looks like a low salary compared with the cost of living in places such as Silicon Valley, they can expect their salaries to increase fairly quickly. Some of these companies are massive wealth generators and good news for investors. It's important that today, technology companies are being seen as wealth creators."

The biggest problem we have in the UK, says Ure, is that venture capitalists regard engineering as a trade conducted by "people with dirty rags mopping up puddles of oil. But it's not like that. Engineering can be a huge part of wealth creation. Maybe part of the problem is that the UK culturally, when it comes to investment, is a little bit stuck in the past".

According to Ure engineering was once a culturally defining occupation, one where we built rail networks, immense bridges, supersonic planes and rockets that went to the Moon. But we seem to have gotten lost on the way: "In the next couple of decades intelligence and automation are going to be really big. That will put us back on track. In the home realm, where we are putting more and more automation, we will have systems that will simply anticipate everything we want. The paradigm shift will be towards the Internet of Things.

"But whatever you call it, and however you define it, technology will be used to anticipate our needs. Anticipation is the keyword here and it is what the future holds."

He says that in the near future each home will have its own interface. "But it won't be controlled by icons, and you won't be pressing buttons or flipping switches to turn on lights by swiping things on your cell phone. It'll be about gestures and voice. That will be the user interface. I know this sounds a little science fiction, but sci-fi writers in my experience generally get it right."

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