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System Design

IoT and its role in Building Management

Any technology only really becomes adopted into mainstream use when a credible business use-case is made for it. The often discussed Internet of Things (IoT) is often paid lip-service, but not enough is being done to deliver credible implementations which deliver business efficiencies. Too often, this is because the core benefits of the approach are overlooked. IoT is less about connecting disparate devices and more about forging creative solutions which make businesses and organisations more efficient in their day-to-day operations.

Adoption of systems based upon the Internet of Things has spread across a wide range of businesses and organisations, and just as there are a variety of system types and implementations, there are also a whole range of opinions concerning the impact IoT will have on future system design.

IoT is a cumbersome system designation, as it covers a vast number of technologies. Data capture devices such as cameras and door readers are part of the IoT, as are cars which report performance status and fridges which alert users when they’re running low on certain products. App-controlled appliance switches are every bit as much a part of the IoT ecosystem as motion detectors which create notifications for a security team, or track monitoring systems which alert train operators if a level crossing is blocked.

It’s for this very reason that a growing number of integrators shy away from references to IoT systems. The general public are buying IoT devices on the High Street and from internet sales giants, and therefore at times the typical reaction to the term is to imagine consumer goods and gimmicky devices.

Like many technology trends, IoT is one that seems to be mentioned far more often than it’s ever explained. When it is, the definition is usually vague. One such definition describes IoT as: ‘implementing physical objects embedded with software and sensors to exchange data over the Internet’. It is a pretty broad vision, and not one that’s helpful when trying to pin down how IoT can be defined in a business application.

Because the term IoT is bandied about by a whole range of manufacturers and service providers, many end users have become convinced that creating credible and robust IoT systems is easily achievable. They are seeking a range of intelligent objects, all communicating and working together to deliver a host of business efficiencies, but is that practical given today’s technological landscape?

Not a singular system

The first task when considering IoT implementations is to realise that any business or organisation is unlikely to have one single all-purpose IoT system. No one with any sense is asking for such a solution, nor would one make sense.

Businesses and organisations will have a core function: the operation which makes it money. This might be retail, logistics, financial management, transportation, manufacturing or a whole host of other trades and functions. If the core function fails, the company goes out of business.

Most commercial entities or public service operations will build an IoT implementation specifically focused on their core functions. The system will be created and managed by experts in the given field, and the system will invariably be ring-fenced and include redundancy to ensure it is robust and resilient.

Businesses and organisations also have additional functions which invariably need to be performed to keep the place of business operational. These peripherals include management of lighting, heating, energy, access control, security, health and safety, asset management, parking control, system monitoring, communications, etc.. Again, an IoT implementation makes sense as it can add efficiencies and streamline these non-core functions. In short, an IoT implementation will be created for building and site management.

This building management system will operate independently of other IoT systems managing core functions, plus other site-specific IoT deployments for other tasks.

Many manufacturers and service providers like to herald IoT as a single system that does all things. Often, by digging deeper into the claims, what you find is a large selection of random internet-connected devices on offer with little consideration of how or why an end user would gain benefits from them.

Connectivity and sharing

A thing connected to the Internet is not the same as the Internet of Things. Internet-connected devices typically offer one benefit: the ability to allow remote control and/or connection. The difference between this and an IoT implementation is like night and day. In IoT systems, a range of devices communicate, share data, and enable each other to take actions based upon a range of criteria.

To achieve this, a common language is required. The connected devices need to be able to communicate something meaningful to each other, or the situation is no different to what exists with siloed systems. Most businesses have a plethora of legacy devices connected to the internet discretely, with a multitude of confusing protocols preventing meaningful and beneficial connections being made. However, to realise the added value IoT offers, it’s not enough to simply ensure the various devices have a common language. They also need to have a common purpose in order to be effective.

As an example, a number of IoT devices could communicate using a common language, but unless the data shared through the connections has validity, the IoT implementation makes no sense.

Monitoring the temperature of freezers in a warehouse is a good example of how IoT can add efficiencies for a food distribution business. If freezers fail while the facility is closed, the losses to the business – both financially and in terms of continuity of supply – would be significant. However, by linking temperature sensors, secure communications, alarm data reporting and other elements of the IoT system, a solution can be created which simplifies the necessary actions.

When an increase in temperature is detected, the first step could be to send a push notification to a manager. This might include a snapshot so they can ascertain whether or not the freezer has been left open, for example. If this is not the case and there is a fault, a message can then be sent to an engineer. They could also be sent a specially created temporary access code to allow them to enter the facility.

Such a scenario makes sense, because the various IoT devices share a common purpose. However, if the temperature sensor shares its data with a device which cannot action the necessary steps to deliver a resolution to the problem, it offers no value to the end user. A common language between devices is necessary, but so is a common purpose. This is why dedicated IoT implementations to handle building and asset management are vital.

The ability for devices to communicate is not what will drive the adoption of IoT implementations; unless a real and genuine benefit is created for the end user, designing a connected system is little more than folly. By linking devices with a common purpose, it becomes simple to create added value.

If a sensor on a door communicates with a surveillance camera to report it has been opened, the camera could then automatically position itself to capture video of the door. The interaction would be more beneficial if combined with additional sources of information.

By adding information from an access control system, the IoT implementation is able to make more sense of the situation. The message changes from the fact a door has been opened to: ‘John Smith has just opened the door’. The access control software could compare a database image of the user with the one captured by the camera.

Defining building management

So, what should be included in a building management-based IoT implementation? At it’s core, such a system would be primarily made up of sensors and controllers, but it is important to think of sensors in the broadest application of the word. Under that category could be cameras, access control points, pressure and vibration sensors, thermal and temperature sensors, audio, motion detectors and any other item which can provide accurate real-time site status information.

Each connected device is relatively simple, and performs a task either related to capturing data or controlling other parts of the system. It encompasses the driving principle behind the IoT, in that specialist devices are able to deliver additional capabilities as a result of connectivity and data sharing with other specialist devices.

Alongside the connected devices, there is also a need for a management layer made up of software which handles the data received from and transmitted to the edge devices.

With the high levels of flexibility, customisation and logical switching and control of edges devices, modern VMS solutions are ideal for the role as a central software element. As the breadth of supported devices incorporates a growing number of IoT elements and sensors, so the appeal of such solutions becomes obvious. Because they were also designed for critical operations, the reliability of such software options ensures continuity, even in hostile conditions.

It is worth considering a typical IoT site management scenario, such as controlling traffic in a logistics business. A site would need to ensure vehicles were directed to empty loading bays, and all traffic movements complied with health and safety directives.

The site would deploy cameras to monitor the routes in, out and around the site. These cameras would provide real-time data ensuring management knew which loading bays were vacant, how many vehicles were waiting, where any bottlenecks were occurring, etc.. The system could provide real-time notifications as and when vehicles were waiting and suitable bays were vacant.

If vehicles were parked in a dedicated waiting area, the barriers could automatically open when a loading bay was available, and any instructions could be displayed for drivers on a monitor.

If an incident occurs, such an accident or a delay which exceeded a prescribed time window, the relevant video would automatically be forwarded to the depot management. Equally, this could be used to detect vehicles parked in restricted areas, vehicles travelling in the wrong direction or even people walking in areas where vehicle movements are occurring.

Accurate status reports could be delivered to management teams, allowing them to monitor personnel levels, ensuring delays were minimised. It would also be possible to switch off power and lighting on loading bays which are not in use, or to activate security monitoring when required.

An important element of such IoT implementations is the way that the devices are able to be used in an ad hoc way, as they are needed. Proximity to other devices, or simple requests from other devices for information, mean they are brought into the system when the data they can supply is of optimum use. Until it is, there is no need to share information.

This highlights an additional element when planning an IoT system for building management. It is not only important that the various devices can communicate using a common language and are sharing data which is relevant to a common purpose, but there is a need to ensure the data used is relevant to a specific task at any given moment in time. In short, when confronted with a situation, the central management software should be able to request appropriate data. This is easily achieved with VMS platforms, because of the way they have been designed.

It’s worth remembering that building management IoT deployments can effectively exist as a closed system. Because the solution will impact on issues such as security, safety, personal data management, etc., the devices will not be connected to the wider internet.

This increases resilience against cybersecurity attacks, and ensures site management remains in the hands of specialist departments.

Managing crossover

The fact most sites will not have a single all-encompassing Internet of Things has already been addressed. However, one area which requires consideration is that some connected devices might play a role in more than one IoT, governed by different needs. For example, a camera may have a security or safety role, while at the same time performing heat mapping or asset tracking for core business functions.

In the building management IoT, detection of a person in a secure space outside of working hours, without the access control system reporting the presence of an employee, would activate an alarm. In a business IoT implementation, this wouldn’t be of concern, unless it was flagged as an issue relating to opening hours.

During normal business hours, cameras might measure customer footfall, register dwell events or monitor stock levels and feed this information to business managers, but out of hours the purpose changes to security as a part of a building management implementation.

With increasing use of artificial intelligence, systems could be taught to improve their performance on an on-going basis. This will be further enhanced by the rapid increase in the processing power of edge devices. At present, much of the data transferred between devices is binary – on/off, yes/no for a given value – but increasingly this will become smart metadata, and then rich or intelligent metadata. Decisions will be made faster as devices are able to provide only the most relevant and crucial information for a given scenario, filtering out other data but archiving it for other purposes.

In summary

For many end users and integrators, the Internet of Things is both a significant opportunity to create business efficiencies and a potential liability if the planning does not establish and provide added value. However, by focusing on a common goal such as building management, IoT can enable businesses and organisations to reap significant rewards.

The first step is in recognising how IoT can help to create a smarter and safer business environment, and concentrating on real efficiencies can ensure a tangible return on investment for all stakeholders.

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