Smarts are coming to everything: Consumers are now familiar with smartphones, 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 percent of our lives in them. Up until 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 to be productive facility managers and monetizable for 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 IoT, big data, cloud computing, data analytics, deep learning, and artificial intelligence (AI), for the benefits of saving energy, reducing operational expenditures, increasing occupancy comfort, and — most importantly — meeting increasingly stringent global regulations and sustainability standards?

These were some questions I was attempting to get answered at AHR Expo 2019.

The continuing trend is toward energy reduction, decarbonization, and lowering greenhouse gas 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, especially its energy envelope.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), commercial buildings as a sector consume as much as 19 percent of total energy consumption. That equates to almost 19 quadrillion Btus.

If we look at Europe, the numbers look very similar: Commercial and residential buildings are responsible for 40 percent of total energy consumption and 36 percent of CO2 emissions. Currently, about 35 percent of the European Union’s (EU’s) buildings are over 50 years old, and almost 75 percent of the building stock is energy inefficient. Only 0.4 to 1.2 percent (depending on country) of EU building stock is renovated each year. Thus, it is imperative to enable fast and easily deployed building automation technologies in order to move the needle on energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Another clear trend 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 BAS 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. Edge computing refers to the processing and analytics running on an “edge” device, such as a gateway, 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 leads to faster response times. Gateways can range from as basic as a Raspberry Pi board to powerful servers that are capable of handling large numbers of endpoints and withstand extreme temperatures and vibration. There are considerable concerns about security with the advent of IoT. As the number of connected devices increases, the flow of data inside buildings becomes more complex, and the operational and IT networks of a building start to converge. Edge computing keeps information local to preserve 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. For the last 30 years, the company has 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 is to enable device makers to bring connected products to market via a range of IoT-optimized embedded systems, and to embrace the market’s shift from individual components to all-encompassing systems in the building — extending to smart campuses and cities.

The company’s SmartServer IoT is a good example of edge computing. It is an open, programmable edge server and field controller for commercial buildings with application programming interfaces (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 opening special ports through a building firewall. The product works with BACnet, LonWorks, and Modbus, as well as with building management systems, remote clients, and cloud applications from any vendor.

Keeping in mind what I brought up about decarbonization, Adesto has a collaboration with IBM in order to offer a predictive energy management solution for building managers. It uses AI 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 was a mechanical engineer and worked in the HVAC field for 45 years — since pneumatic controllers were used for thermostats and valves. In the past, when he would talk about boilers, chillers, compressors, and expansion valves, I would try to hide a yawn. I thought mechanical engineering was somewhat uncool compared to electrical engineering. But I have to admit that the products and technologies I saw in Atlanta were all very cool!

Publication date: 2/25/2019

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