Innovation on all levels

Tim Ensor takes a look at what will really be required to create truly smart buildings

Tomorrow’s buildings will not simply be lumps of concrete in which we while away our everyday routine. Through the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), paired with innovative construction methods and cutting-edge materials, structures of the not-sodistant future will look and behave very differently from the buildings we know today.

The UK government announced last year an extra £45 million of public funding for IoT research, bringing the total to £73 million. This has the potential to enable a better-connected world.

However, having heating and cooling controls in a building does not make it a smart building. Critical to a true smart building is connectivity of all sensors and control equipment, and – crucially – connectivity of people with the building. Ensuring electronic systems from heating and cooling controls to security and access, lighting, and any other technology, is integrated and connected, so that each one can work in synch with what people really need – that is the true definition of smart. However, in order to see this take off, it will need to be both economic and easy to use.

To make these future smart buildings a reality will need both innovation at the individual device level, and also innovation on how we connect them together.

An example of innovation at the device level will continue to come from developments in LED technology. Although not a new breakthrough, we haven’t even touched on the potential capability that this technology could offer in terms of changing the way we light our spaces.

So far, LEDs have mainly been used to replace existing fixed light fittings, but as we’re seeing in emerging digital signage, LEDs are starting to be used to create displays on any flat surface. We see this being increasingly used at events such as CES to turn surfaces of the exhibition stands into video screens.

As LED technology continues to improve and as prices come down for larger arrays of bright LEDs, we’ll start to see surfaces being used as light sources to complement the point light fittings we’re used to today.

Innovation in how we connect and control such systems is another area we see vast advancements made in. We have long been able to control our lighting (especially in commercial buildings) from occupancy sensors, daylight sensors etc. but we should expect to see much more sophisticated – and user-friendly forms of control emerging.

We’re starting to see the emergence of smarter lighting, which has much better information about who’s in the building. This is starting to emerge in the smart-home market with smart lights which recognise the presence of a particular individual when their smart phone comes home (e.g. the Philips Hue system).

Taking this idea into commercial buildings you could expect to see more convenient and efficient lighting if the lighting system knows more about its occupants. If the lights in a room knows who’s there, it can ensure the lights are on, and that the lights to the exit also stay lit. It could also present a control panel for the lights on the smartphone of people in the building – and by knowing who’s in the room you can ensure that only the people in the room – or others with the right privileges – can change the lights from their smartphone.

We recently created a smart lighting controller for one of our clients, including a Bluetooth Smart wireless connection as well as the traditional passive infra-red (PIR) occupancy sensor and lightlevel sensor. The sophisticated lighting controller uses a Bluetooth Smart connection from a smartphone to configure, adjust or override settings using the rich user interface of a smartphone app. The product is designed to meet the needs of installers and facilities managers by making it quick and easy to configure whilst offering the advanced features needed to tailor the lighting control for different building users. This is an example how advancements in connected devices are surging with potential to make buildings smarter for both installers and occupiers.

Using these ideas and the emerging wireless connectivity standards such as Bluetooth Mesh or Thread would enable a more distributed form of lighting control which would mean that these features are easier to use and more economic to install.

The main issues we will have to face in making these concepts a reality are around how to manage the large networks of wireless devices to make this kind of connected lighting scale to large buildings (the Philips Hue system supports up to 50 lights) and also how do we ensure that the user experience for these systems is good. When we scale this technology from a home to a large building, we get added complexity over which lights should be controlled, by who and when.

Smart Buildings and Smart Homes are the focus of a lot of interest as the likely next wave of the Internet of Things. The companies who succeed in this sector will be those who are able to solve these issues in a way which makes it simple for occupiers and building managers to get the most out of the spaces they inhabit and oversee.

Tim Ensor is Head of Connected Devices at Cambridge Consultants. Cambridge Consultants develops breakthrough products, creates and licenses intellectual property, and provides business consultancy in technology-critical issues for clients worldwide. For more than 50 years, the company has been helping its clients turn business opportunities into commercial successes, whether they are launching firstto- market products, entering new markets or expanding existing markets through the introduction of new technologies.

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