Smarts are coming to everything, consumers are now familiar with smart phones, smart cars, and smart homes. What about the segment of buildings and infrastructure?
Buildings can be considered our “second skin” since we spend about 80% of our lives in them. Up till recently, buildings were considered a depreciating asset, but is it possible that buildings of the future will be a strategic asset; that they will operate in an intelligent way and be productive and monetizable assets for facility managers and real estate owners? Is it possible that the traditionally conservative and risk-averse building and construction industry would leverage the latest technologies such as the Internet-of-Things (IoT), Big data, Cloud computing, Data analytics, Deep learning, and Artificial Intelligence for the benefits of saving energy, reducing operational expenditures, increasing occupancy comfort, and most important – meeting increasingly stringent global regulations and sustainability standards?
These were some questions I was attempting to get answered at AHR Expo 2019 – one of the world’s largest HVAC conferences at the Georgia World Congress Center. This annual event enables leaders in the industry to network, share best practices, and get up to speed on the latest equipment and solutions. This year’s Expo drew more than 65,000 attendees and 1800 exhibitors – with almost 500 of them international exhibitors from 35 countries.
The continuing trend is towards energy reduction, de-carbonization, and lowering GHG emissions; I noticed an increasing number of companies working on IoT connected nodes, devices, and gateways that will offer intelligence about the building’s operations, and especially its energy envelope. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, commercial buildings as a sector consume as much as 19% of total energy consumption; this equates to almost 19 quadrillion BTUs.
If we look towards Europe, the numbers look very similar: commercial + residential buildings are responsible for 40% of total energy consumption, and 36% of CO2 emissions. Currently about 35% of the EU’s buildings are over 50 years old and almost 75% of the building stock is energy-inefficient. Only 0.4% to 1.2% (depending on country) of EU building stock is renovated each year; thus it is imperative to enable fast and easy deployment building automation technologies in order to move the needle on energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
Another clear trend clear at AHR was digitalization; everything that can be sensed and measured – air pressure, humidity, light, motion, presence, temperature – can be used to make adjustments to reduce energy consumption and to better suit occupant preferences. Unlimited Cloud computing and storage accessible not just to large companies but also to small startups is changing the rate of innovation in the built environment. Buildings that currently do not have a building automation system, could skip that step altogether and take their business direct to the Cloud. The advantage of Cloud computing is that, automation can be performed in a holistic manner using a consistent set of algorithms, tools, and dashboards on a portfolio of different properties belonging to the same landlord or real-estate firm.
Though Cloud computing is well-known in the industry, Edge computing is not as well known. Edge computing refers to the processing and analytics running on an “edge” device such as a gateway or server, or sometimes in the sensor module itself; it is the demarcation point between the IoT nodes in the building and the Cloud or company’s data center. The advantage is that any data sent to the Cloud can be a smaller subset of the computations, or a summary of the analytics. This consumes lower network bandwidth, and end-to-end latencies are lower which obviously leads to faster response times. Gateways can range from as basic as a Raspberry Pi board to powerful servers that are capable of high computations, complex analytics, and the ability to handle large numbers of endpoints and withstand extremes of temperature and vibration. There are considerable concerns about security with the advent of IoT as the number of connected devices increase, the flow of data inside buildings becomes more complex and the Operational and IT networks of a building start to converge. Edge computing – by keeping information local, better preserves the privacy and security of building and occupant data.
With these thoughts at the back of my mind, I happened to stumble onto Echelon’s, now part of Adesto Technologies, booth at AHR. The aroma of Beef Wellington puffs and Chicken skewers with Mango salsa wafting from their booth probably helped guide me in their direction.
The company has for the last 30 years been developing open-standard control networking platforms necessary to monitor communities of devices, and is currently embedded in more than 140 million devices, 35 million homes, and 300,000 buildings worldwide. Adesto’s focus today is to enable device makers to bring connected products to market via a range of IoT-optimized embedded systems, and embrace the market’s shift from individual components to all-encompassing systems in the building – and extending to smart campuses and cities.
The company’s SmartServer IoT is a good example of what we discussed earlier about Edge computing. It is an open, programmable edge server and field controller for commercial buildings with APIs based on IoT Access Protocol that can communicate data from building controllers, meters and sensors to web services and the Cloud. This can be done securely and efficiently without needing special ports to be opened through a building firewall. The product can work with BACnet, LonWorks, and Modbus building automation protocols – as well as with building management systems, remote clients, and cloud applications from any vendor. Keeping in mind what I brought up about de-carbonization – Adesto has a collaboration with IBM in order to offer a predictive energy management solution for building managers through Artificial Intelligence algorithms and analytics running on IBM’s Watson IoT platform.
The AHR Expo made me reminisce a bit; my education was in electrical engineering and digital signal processing, and I have spent the last 25 years in the fields of Wireless, Semiconductors, Broadband, and Automotive. My dad in contrast was a mechanical engineer and for 45 years worked in the fields of HVAC – right from the early days when pneumatic controllers were used for thermostats and valves. In the past when he would talk about boilers, chillers, compressors, expansion valves – I would try to hide a yawn and think mechanical engineering was somewhat uncool compared to electrical engineering, and I am so glad I chose the “right” engineering discipline. I have to admit that the products and technologies I saw over the three days at AHR Expo 2019 were all very cool!