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Smarter buildings need better automation

11 October 2012

Propelled by growing energy concerns and technology advancements the building industry has made several strides in building controls and automation. However, despite the progress, Jim Sinopoli believes we’re not even close to the potential of fully deploying automation in our buildings.

Jim Sinopoli

More automation, much more than anything currently deployed, is not only possible but would provide the performance we seek and need in our buildings. At the same time automation can support facilities management personnel who are challenged with progressively more complex building systems and the constantly changing skill sets and knowledge required to operate them.

An example of where we are at, and where we need to go, would be software applications such as fault detection and diagnostics. This is really a cutting edge tool for buildings today and probably the most effective building analytic application on the market. In spite of that, it’s only ‘half a loaf’. What if we had an application that could not only automatically detect faults but also automatically correct those faults? That’s total automation - something similar to an ‘autopilot’.

Actually, the origin of autopilots for aircraft control is interesting and possibly instructive as far as buildings are concerned. The first autopilot instrument was invented about 100 years ago, just a few years after the first aircraft got off the ground. In the initial demonstration of his invention (a gyroscope-equipped stabiliser), the inventor Lawrence Sperry and his mechanic climbed out of the cockpit and onto the wings, as the autopilot immediately took over and corrected the aircraft’s attitudinal change.

Imagine the confidence of those men walking out onto the wings of an aircraft in flight to demonstrate the efficacy of Sperry’s invention! Buildings are not aircraft, of course, but the qualities of the aviation inventor - boldness, innovation and vision - will be needed to accelerate the uptake of automation in our buildings.

Automation roadmap
The roadmap to advanced automated buildings involves several key issues that the automation industry, the building designers, the contractors, managers and owners need to address. I’ll summarise these in the following paragraphs:

Granular data  -  building-wide or system-wide data will not be sufficient for a highly automated building. The metrics are too broad and vague. In order to fully manage a building we need to get down to the details. The spaces within most buildings are too different regarding their orientation, use, occupancy, needs, etc. Granular data provides more precision in properly managing specific spaces within a building, potentially resulting in squeezing out the smallest amount of excess energy consumption and improving occupant satisfaction. Going ‘granular’ will mean more sensors, tailored controls for individual spaces and, of course, a bit more investment.

Detailed policies and logic  -  for a building to be fully automated it will require the ‘logic’ or the ‘policies’ of the automation to be fully developed. These are pre-determined rules using an array of data sources. The building senses real time conditions and then automatically responds or adjusts - much like Sperry’s gyroscopic stabiliser.

The policies will need to touch on every significant building situation or scenario affecting energy, operational costs, life safety and tenant comfort, and planning will involve diverse groups within the building’s ownership and management. This is really an extensive exercise to develop the brains of the automation systems and in the process, decide exactly how the building should adapt to changes and how it should perform.

Data analytics  -  traditionally, facilities management has focused on analysing energy consumption data, using analytical tools to optimise HVAC but there’s a lot more data out there to be generated and analysed.

A critical component in building automation is data, because it’s the data that will be the foundation for the development and revisions to the automation logic or policies. Call it data mining, business intelligence or predictive analytics, it all comes down to analysing the building data, finding trends in how the building is performing or being used, inferring relationships between variables and creating rules; then using that information to predict how the building performs under different scenarios.

Sensor, sensors, sensors  -  highly automated buildings will need many additional sensors and metering; some for energy systems (plug load, lighting, HVAC), others for air quality, building occupancy, external lighting conditions, water consumption, security, and so on. A key building metric is occupancy and it may prove to be the most challenging to obtain. This is not because there are no technical solutions to measure or sense occupancy; in fact, a number of solutions exist, each bringing its own advantages and disadvantages.

Most lighting control systems, for example, incorporate an occupancy sensor and some can even track the path the occupant is taking. Others use the lighting control occupancy sensor for control of plug load within the room or space. However, occupancy sensors attached to lighting control systems alone may not be enough. Video cameras, access control systems, infrared sensors on door frames, RFID tags, monitoring whether the spaces’ IT equipment is on or off – these are all ways to determine occupancy.

Understanding the larger context of ICT  -  we can’t be constructing highly automated buildings in isolation. All around us is a society connected - often in a pervasive and hyperactive manner - to other people and objects, and everyone occupying, managing and owning buildings is part of this connected community. In addition, there are concepts on the horizon such as the ‘Internet of Things’ and ‘ambient intelligence’, reminding us that technology trends, in general, and connectivity, in particular, will not only continue to evolve but most likely accelerate.

We’ve seen the relentless penetration of IT into the ‘traditional’ building control model, and we naturally expect information and communication technology to play a greater role in building automation. Sometimes IT and facilities management organisations seem like two sides of the same coin, both involved with networks and systems, albeit different systems. Within each company or organisation it will require greater accommodations and a stronger relationship between IT and facilities management in order to progress automation; possibly organising both under a single ‘systems engineering’ banner.

Enhanced automation is a means to achieving that nirvana of minimal energy consumption and improved building performance - and it’s achievable without any of us sitting out on the wings of an aircraft in flight to do so!

Jim Sinopoli is founder and managing partner of Smart Buildings LLC


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