How are IoT devices changing the building automation industry? In a conventional automated building, a standalone, proprietary network is installed to communicate with environmental systems and simple devices. The network is connected to controllers, which are then connected to sensors and terminal devices such as fans, heating or cooling valves, and dampers implemented to control environments.
Advanced systems are tied into a building’s IT infrastructure to allow building information to be shared with other systems or to implement cybersecurity. These integrations typically take place at the front end of the building system or at the top-level controllers that run the automation network. This leaves the building automation network exposed at the lowest levels because the proprietary network that runs the building isn’t necessarily compatible with security implemented at the IT level.
As a result, many systems are left separated from the IT network within a building, or compromises are made to security. The trend for building automation devices is taking us in another direction, however. More sensors, actuators, and controllers are being designed with IoT capabilities.
To take a simplified look at what defines an IoT device, a device is considered “IoT-ready” to connect to the Internet using an IoT communication protocol. It must connect securely and with standard IoT protocols such as MQTT and the REST API. The protocol ensures the device will be speaking the same language as other IoT devices and IoT information gatherers. This means that information from the device can be sent to the cloud and interpreted by information hubs. The purpose of the IoT connection to these hubs is to allow for the sharing of device data to run functionality and operations more effectively and efficiently. It’s also for sharing that data with different systems that may feed other business processes. Examples include IoT-connected occupancy sensors analyzing office space utilization across a portfolio of buildings.
IoT devices’ definition is an important one because a device that connects to the Internet may not be transmitting information that can be understood easily by other devices. IoT protocols such as MQTT ensure that others can read device data. This is a revolutionary technology step for the building automation system (BAS) industry because BAS communications are dominated by proprietary information transfer. Even when using a unifying communication protocol, such as BACnet, information can be wrapped in proprietary packets, denying other systems the use of that data.
In plain terms, just because you can access a device’s data, it doesn’t mean your interface will be able to read that data. Suppose a device is to be considered truly IoT. In that case, it should be transmitting its information to the cloud in a way that’s readily available to other devices and systems using a specific IoT protocol. This availability of data is not guaranteed in a BACnet implementation. BACnet is still the largest interoperable certified standard in the industry. It can easily share data on IP and now securely with BACnet Secure Connect. Still, IoT is being driven by a higher level of need that doesn’t need to get into the details of the BAS control system and monitor and share data that can be used more easily amongst other systems and analytic and AI engines.
Within that definition, there is room for devices that can excel at that communication. One way to enhance functionality is through the implementation of an API. An API allows other systems to access a program’s functionality without exposing that program’s source code. In effect, it is a method for systems to speak with devices without needing to have intricate knowledge of how they function. For instance, an IoT thermostat may transmit sensor data to the cloud. It could transmit temperature, humidity, or even CO2 readings.
Through a standard communication protocol, you might be able to send commands back to the thermostat, such as a target set-point for the temperature or thresholds for humidity and CO2. With an API, you could take both the sensor information and the control to place it within your own software. This means that a hotel check-in app could also change room temperature preferences, or a hospital OR booking system could display when an OR has reached the correct environmental setting for a procedure.
This is a major evolutionary step for the commercial building automation industry since, historically, very few people had access to the control of commercial spaces. That access is generally managed through a proprietary front-end system where data is arranged in a manner that is only suitable for building automation experts and building operators. With IoT and APIs, building control is much more accessible. Now, a building’s controls can be engaged for occupancy from the detection of occupants leaving their homes to their arrival at the office. All of this data is shared in the cloud. Schedules can be shared among applications in the cloud where the building can prepare environments thermally and for secure access – having shared connections to an occupant’s work schedule. This exposes the need and expectation for mobility and accessibility, wherever and whenever the user needs and based on their daily activities. IoT provides accessibility through cloud data, visualizations, and insights.
Changing the World
How will this new automation industry help us and change the world? The ability to adjust a boardroom’s temperature might not seem important during the COVID-19 pandemic because you probably shouldn’t even be using that boardroom. Remember, though, an IoT device is defined as a more accessible device that can be accessed more easily by other systems.
While the boardroom’s temperature may not be your primary concern, what if you could see when the boardroom was used last? When was it cleaned or sterilized last? What if you could signal to building maintenance that an area should be cleaned?
IoT technology has many functions that allow us to get back to our offices faster and even help control outbreaks. IoT can be implemented on devices that are wireless or use other communication methods. With Bluetooth beaconing from BAS devices to your smartphone, a system could know where users are in a building and log where they have been.
What does this mean? If someone tests positive for COVID-19, other users who shared space with that person would be alerted so they could quarantine. In a smart office, you could know with a great deal of accuracy whether you crossed paths with someone who contracted COVID-19. You could take action based on that knowledge by getting tested and self-isolating. When a significant number of COVID-19 carriers are asymptomatic, this kind of information could go a long way to mitigating the spread of an outbreak.
IoT connectivity is beginning to feed a new level of intelligence for buildings. System-level analysis with prediction is starting to become mainstream. It is being implemented by energy services firms and companies providing fault detection and diagnostics. AI algorithms with access to building data are solving more of the challenging problems that many complex systems have within larger institutional buildings. That is really the focus of making all this data available to the cloud.
Problems that human operators cannot identify can be solved using algorithms that search for patterns in building data or data from multiple buildings. For example, this would entail providing insightful visualizations to events and alarms that occur within buildings daily so facility managers can manage more effectively and efficiently address issues for maintenance. This is done by analyzing patterns of larger data sets in the cloud and applying machine learning algorithms to identify patterns, trends and predict issues that can be properly planned and managed.
IoT isn’t just changing how building networks are implemented and devices are installed. IoT is changing the availability of building data down to the sensor level. This is creating the opportunity for AI to take the data from several buildings – or perhaps one day even hundreds or thousands of buildings – and identify the opportunities for more efficient operations that we can’t see in a conventional system.