Karl Walker, marketing development manager for Beckhoff, discusses the Internet of Things and how to use it effectively in buildings.

The late, great rock star and all round icon David Bowie sung about ‘Changes’ on his 1971 hit. Nearly 30 years later, in an interview on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Bowie spoke with some impressive foresight about the changes the modern world as we know it would experience with the growing potential of the internet. The interview from 1999 resurfaced again in January this year, on the third anniversary of Bowie’s death. In the clip, Bowie explains to Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman: “I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”

Well just how correct did he prove to be?! The ‘bad’ and ‘terrifying’ aspects have been covered in depth through other media, so in this article we’ll be focusing on the ‘good’ and ‘exhilarating’ and, in particular, how it can help us manage our built environment better.

If, like me, you’re old enough to remember using the internet back in the 1990s then you may recall the slow dial up, the annoying tone, downloads that took all day, not to mention the arguments over whose turn it was on the computer! More often than not we used it to visit a specific website for information and instead of “Googling” something we would “Ask Jeeves”.

Now we have instant access to the internet, which we use for watching videos, sharing photos, listening to music, catching up on the latest news and, if we’re honest, a lot of time wasting! But the internet is no longer restricted to the screen; we are now in the age of the Internet of Things (IoT), built on the idea that any object can connect to the internet.

What is IoT?

The IoT is the network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity which enables these objects to connect and exchange data.

There have been some rather wild theories about how technology is taking over the world and how we’ll eventually be ruled by robots, as well as some infamous examples of where the IoT has gone ‘wrong’. However, these stories usually involve cases of poor implementation in consumer products and shouldn’t be held up as a reason for us to lose faith in the IoT. The whole idea of the IoT is to facilitate the connection of disparate devices and allow them to exchange data using open, non-vendor specific protocols, and to make the data instantly available to the user(s) or other software applications.

What isn't IoT?

With so much smart technology about now it is all too easy to assume that it is all part of the IoT. However, devices with built-in wireless connectivity that don’t connect to a cloud based service should not be classified as IoT devices. An example of this might be a wireless sensor that connects to a remote display device or datalogger. If its information is not made available to other devices, it is not IoT!

The phrase ‘Industry 4.0’ was first coined in 2011 to encompass the revolution of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies via physical or cyber-physical systems which aggregate raw data to higher-value contextural information to ensure interoperability of equipment, transparency of data across the plant and decentralised decision making. This does not necessarily involve IoT technologies and more commonly relies on industrial networks or ‘fieldbuses’. However, increasingly, the same outcomes are achieved via the implementation of IoT devices within the subsystems.

There is no defined standard as to how IoT devices should communicate. IoT is not a ‘fieldbus’ like BACnet, DALI or Modbus. A smart lightbulb controlled by a wireless remote control is not IoT in itself. However, add a ‘hub’ (gateway), connected to the internet via a broadband router and now you have a potential IoT system. This relies on the manufacturer exposing their API to allow other applications and devices to control it.

IoT in buildings

The IoT is now starting to have a transformative effect on smart building automation and control. By disrupting long established business models and offering significant new opportunities to improve the efficiency of buildings, the IoT can raise employee productivity as well as stimulating the development of innovative services.

In tenanted buildings (domestic or commercial) there is a question about who takes ownership of IoT connections. If a smart building or home has been designed around a network structure then the landlord needs to own that structure in order to ensure smooth operation. However, like energy suppliers, the tenant has the right to choose their provider. Changing a router to a new one provided by a new ISP could cause the smart devices to stop working (pending re-configuration). This raises the question about ownership; the most robust method would be for the landlord to own and maintain the system and provide a paid-for service to the tenant.

How can IoT be implemented?

IoT’s raison d'être is to connect devices and systems. The problem with most buildings stems from the fact that responsibilities for the implementation of mechanical and electrical systems are separated at the consultancy stage, then typically awarded as individual packages to different providers. Unless there is the overarching role of ‘master systems integrator’, these systems are unlikely to be interconnected and will remain as individual silos of control.

The excellent standard BS EN15232-1:2017, ‘Energy Performance of Buildings. Impact of Building Automation, Controls and Building Management’, highlights and quantifies how the convergence of all aspects of building control can result in significant energy savings, e.g. more than 50% for thermal energy usage in an office (Class A compliant vs. Class D).

A typical building control scenario: separate controllers for heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting require their own sensors (e.g. presence detection, temperature and humidity measurement) and (possibly) have limited communications functionality without the addition of additional hardware or a third party gateway;

Using a single controller for all aspects of building automation is one way to resolve this, as it has the added bonus of only needing one set of input sensors whose data can be used by any function. With a single system it is very easy to interlock all control regimes, e.g. heating and cooling, lighting and shading, etc. It also becomes significantly easier to publish all data directly to the cloud, from a single point, facilitating remote data capture, storage, analysis and management.

However, for a building with existing functional plant and control equipment (albeit unoptimised and perhaps not performing as one would hope), it might be unrealistic – or uneconomical - to take a ‘rip it out and start again’ approach. By using an overarching controller to aggregate operational data from all equipment, communication ‘gateway’ products or IoT software add-ons (such as MQTT data agents, if they are available for that equipment), it is highly likely that links can be established between these disparate pieces of plant and their data converged in a cloud platform. Cloud based software could then be used to make sense of all this data and, combined with rules and algorithms and artificial intelligence or self-learning systems, control decisions can be made and new parameters sent to the relevant controllers to ensure optimum performance.

However, the IoT should not be viewed as the remedy to all control problems and there is no A to Z guide for its implementation and not all legacy equipment will be IoT compatible. It is important to always have an outcome objective in mind, always look at building automation systems holistically, and – most importantly – ensure that the equipment you use is open, scalable, secure, and plays nicely with the IT world.