There are two schools of thought when it comes to the definition of smart systems. The first is what those who manufacture and design solutions consider as ‘smart’. This is generally established through comparisons with other available systems and the features and functions these include. The second is what the end user considers to be ‘smart’, and this is the important definition. When systems are able to use available data to make credible, effective and accurate decisions, that is often what the customer is seeking from a solution.
Smart technology is becoming ever more prolific in a wider number of applications, and is being driven by developments across a number of sectors. While some of the technology deployments are solving very specific problems for niche applications, a definition needs to be made between one-off intelligent bespoke designs and everyday or mainstream smart options.
Few businesses or organisations are currently wishing to invest significant amounts of their budget in high end AI-based systems, no matter how clever they are, just to be innovators. While the emerging technologies are being adopted by some, and certainly are indicative of the good things to come in the future, today’s end users want solutions which solve everyday problems in an effective and efficient manner.
It is remarkably easy to chase the next wave of intelligence instead of addressing today’s problems. There are plenty of people out there who are more than willing to dish out healthy doses of blue sky thinking when it comes to intelligent buildings, the IIoT (industrial internet of things) and smart cities, but do the benefits of a connected metropolis offer a realistic solution for today’s customers?
The short answer is yes; they do. Of course, the short answer isn’t the most helpful unless you have a good understanding of how today’s smarter options function. The basic building blocks of a complex smart campus have much in common with a simple system designed to switch peripheral devices when a pre-defined set of criteria occur.
While many businesses and organisations might view the emergence of smart solutions are something excessive for their needs, this misunderstanding usually occurs because those promoting the technologies in question focus on the biggest and best solutions they can deliver. However, just because a solution can provide a range of services for a commercial airport doesn’t mean it cannot offer benefits for a small retail unit or a commercial office. It is all a question of scale, and smart solutions are fully scalable to meet a variety of needs.
An excellent example of a similar situation occurs within the IT sector. Smart software and advanced hardware are used for the most critical of applications, and many high-end organisations are reliant on their IT-driven solutions to operate. The software can control cities, or run nuclear reactors, or manage the control of air traffic (and even keep the planes in the sky). However, that doesn’t mean IT software and hardware isn’t beneficial for small enterprises or for organisations with very basic needs such as writing letters, tracking invoices or calculating balance sheets.
The reality is that more end users utilise software for these basic tasks than for the smarter operations, and because of this few ignore the benefits on offer. However, because smart solutions are still in their infancy – and partly because the marketing hype is geared towards the ‘biggest and best’ use cases, the business arguments for mainstream smart applications haven’t been made as forcefully as they have for IT-based systems.
The middle ground
While the spike in interest relating to smart cities, AI-based advanced technologies and a fully connected future may have positioned smart technologies at the niche end of the market, simpler solutions have also flooded into the consumer market, offering (but not always delivering) automated actions and data-driven services. Just as the bespoke city-wide projects don’t really make the business case for smart technology in mainstream businesses and organisations, neither do many of the consumer-level options.
Many household names have also been quick to bang the ‘smart’ drum, eager to capitalise on the trends associated with advanced technologies such as AI and machine learning.
If anyone has any doubt about the proliferation of smart technology in the consumer market, the situation is best summed up by looking at where it is being sold. The outlets pedalling the technology are often not specialist companies, high technology outlets or advanced IT engineering professionals.
Smart technology can be purchased from utility companies, department stores, DIY sheds, electrical outlets, catalogue-based cut-price stores and chain bargain goods shops on virtually every high street.
These outlets are dedicating space to these products because they are selling in large numbers, despite not always delivering in terms of performance, reliability or accuracy. Such in the hunger for smart devices, many of the weaknesses are overlooked by customers.
Somewhere between the two extremes of smart connected cities and consumer-based home automation devices lies the mainstream sector for smart solutions. These deliver effective building management systems dedicated to specific sectors – security, safety, lighting, communications, HVAC, process control, power management, building automation, etc. – but also can use collected data to provide additional benefits and business efficiencies.
These benefits and efficiencies are often created by utilising data captured for other purposes. While the mining of big data has become an important part of business operations, the approach is not always replicated when it comes to facilities management. This might be because the end user isn’t aware of how flexible their systems can be, or because the integrator is focused on delivering what the customer has requested, rather than exploring the possibilities when proposing a solution.
A mechanism exists in a wide variety of systems which allows a simple approach to implementing advanced benefits.
Earlier the world of IT was used as an example of how software can provide benefits for a wide range of tasks of varying complexity, as an illustration of how smart technologies can deliver efficiencies to numerous businesses and organisations. Considering IT and smart systems was not accidental, as there is a link which underlines how flexible smart solutions can be. For many end users, the feature which elevates a smart system above those which perform only their core tasks is something called Rules.
Rules go by many names, depending upon which sector is using them. Sometimes referred to as Cause and Effect Programming, Logical Rules, Action Rules, And/Or Logic, Boolean Logic, IFTTT (if this, then that), etc., Rules enable a high degree of control over machine decisions. Rules are similar to Macros, but without a need to learn archaic data strings to perform tasks. Most Rules engines use drop-down menus and simple buttons to establish criteria and resultant actions.
The link with IT is that most programming languages make use of Boolean Logic, which shows how flexible it is, and how it can manage complex scenarios. Despite this, it is an incredibly simple method of programming that delivers complex and bespoke results.
Its implementation is very basic, in that all conditions have one of two values: TRUE or FALSE. Despite being a core concept in algebra, mathematics and computer programming, Boolean Logic is easy to understand. It offers increased flexibility over typical hardware-based inputs and outputs, but without a need for the replacement of legacy hardware-based edge devices.
While having only two possible values might seem something of a limitation, what gives Boolean Logic a significant degree of flexibility is the inclusion of ‘operations’. There are many possible ‘operations’ but the three most basic are also the most powerful, and are also the ‘operations’ that are predominantly used in smart solutions. These are AND, OR and NOT.
In smart building management systems, data gathered from a host of sub-systems is used to allow the creation of Rules based on Boolean Logic. The data can come from many sources: video and detections from security systems, real-time on-site personnel information from access control and time and attendance systems, triggers and reports from environmental sensing, outputs from process control systems, communications networks, status updates from power management, etc..
Data can also be collected from third party sources such as weather reports, traffic updates, transportation data, and used to drive appropriate decisions and system automations.
Because of the way Rules are constructed, the available options will be limited by the edge devices connected to the system and the data being collected. For example, a system with monitored doors will be able to include conditions in Rules based on whether doors are open or closed, but the option will not be available if the doors are not monitored.
When it comes to Operations, there are a number which can be used in Boolean Logic, but the two most common are AND and OR. These, when combined with TRUE and FALSE values, allow advanced functionality to be realised.
AND operations require that multiple TRUE or FALSE values occur concurrently and as prescribed in order for an event to be valid. For example, a site might receive regular deliveries on weekday mornings before the start of the working day. Lorries need to access a loading area for this purpose.
A Rule could be created to manage this using AND Operations.
If an analytics-enabled camera detects a large vehicle entering the site (a TRUE condition) AND it is a weekday between 6am and 9am (another TRUE condition), the system should automatically open the Gate to the loading area as it is an expected delivery. It could also send a push notification to a relevant member of staff so they can accept the delivery.
However, if the lorry is detected (TRUE) AND it is not a weekday between 6am and 9am (FALSE), the system will not open the Gate, instead activating a call point so the driver can talk to staff.
An AND Operation allows a filter to be included which can either verify a condition or trigger a specific action, based upon two or more status conditions occurring together or within a defined time period. In the example, if either the vehicle does not meet the criteria in terms of size, or the times are not correct, the gate will not open. Instead, alternative measures are implemented.
Multiple AND operations can be used to build more complex scenarios.
If a specific manager is tasked with handling deliveries but has not arrived to work when the lorry arrives, as indicated from access control data, the vehicle can be sent to a waiting area. The gate to the loading area is only opened if the vehicle meets set criteria AND the time is valid AND a relevant member of staff is on site. The gate to the waiting area is opened instead if the vehicle meets set criteria AND the time is valid AND there is not a relevant member of staff on site.
AND Operations enable multiple combinations of TRUE or FALSE (or a combination of both) values to create an action or result when combined.
OR Operations differ, in that one of a list of criteria needs to occur in order for an action to be taken. Using the previous example, the gate to the loading area could be configured to automatically open if the time meets the prescribed criteria OR if a relevant member of staff is on-site.
OR Operations would be more commonly used in the example application if there were a number of access routes, multiple permitted time zones, or diverse criteria relating to relevant personnel on site.
The main differentiation between AND and OR Operations is AND Operations allow filtering or the addition of necessary criteria, whereas OR Operations tend to provide a wider range of triggers for actions.
Where AND/OR Operations become even more flexible is when ‘bracketed statements’ are used. Basic AND/OR operations are simple to define, but can lack flexibility. To address this, bracketed statements can often be implemented. These allow the use of AND/OR statements grouped together. For example, bracketed AND operations can be separated by an OR operation. This means that either set of the defined AND operations must occur for the Rule to be actioned.
Consider the following Rule: (Lorry Detected AND Correct Time Zone) OR (Lorry Detected AND Relevant Personnel On-site) = Gate Opened.
In this instance, the action is generated if either set of AND Operations occurs. In short, bracketed AND statements allow groups of AND operations to result in specified actions.
Bracketed OR operations enable a slightly different scenario to be created, as shown in this rule: (Lorry Detected on Road 1 OR Lorry Detected on Road 2) AND (Correct Time Zone OR Relevant Personnel On-site) = Gate Opened.
Finally, bracketed statements can be mixed with standard AND/OR operations, allowing a single flexible Rule to encompass a wide range of criteria to trigger actions, delivering a solution that meets even the most complex needs of the end user.
The use of Rules based on AND/OR logic can be realised via a wide range of systems including VMS and NVRs for video-based systems, intruder detection control panels and software, as well as in advanced management systems in the site protection and access control spaces.
Rules can make use of a wide range of data sources such as detectors and sensors, video and video-based analytics, access transactions, system status reports, operator or visitor actions, time and date, environmental conditions, power status, etc..
Some end users believe that because AND/OR relationships are key to computer programming languages, they must be complicated to implement. However, implementation is simple because smart system manufacturers have devised simple GUIs (graphical user interfaces), allowing integrators and users to exploit the full potential of the technology.
While all smart solutions have variations in their methodology when it comes to cause and effect programming, all use a selection of icons, drop-down menus or clickable links to enable configuration.
Because the available options are limited to devices and data sources attached to the system, this ensures that Rules are not created which cannot function due a lack of relevant data. Well implemented cause and effect programming is foolproof, and delivers a high level of flexibility which adds value for the business or organisation deploying the solution.
In the early days of cause and effect programming, some systems used macros or the addition of specific code snippets. Because of this, a number of implementations required users to have specific IT skills, and as a result these weren’t greatly intuitive. Today’s systems thankfully take a different and far simpler approach, allowing the configuration of even complex events and actions to be created in minutes.
Smart systems using cause and effect programming are increasingly common, and forward-thinking integrators and consultants have been quick to use the technology to create bespoke value-added solutions for end users seeking an enhanced return on investment. As the functionality is typically built in, many have been able to do so while ensuring the systems are competitive in terms of total cost of ownership.
Despite a wide range of smart systems including AND/OR logic, the depth of benefits sometimes go unused. The reason is often integrators and consultants sell systems as solely focused on basic functionality. Unless the end user is made aware of the flexibility on offer, they will not be able to realise the full range of benefits on offer, and as a result they may be unwilling to invest.
It is important end users do not compare the purchase of a smart system against a standard system which only manages core tasks in its given sector. If so, a smart system can appear to be less than competitive, because the full range of benefits and business efficiencies are not being considered.
Often decisions to reject smart solutions are made not because the user doesn’t want to invest in the system on offer, but because the integrator or consultant simply hasn’t highlighted the full range of added-value benefits the smart technology offers.
Simply stating a system is ‘smart’ isn’t enough. By explaining the benefits and showing the end user examples of how it can create efficiencies in their business or organisation, their ability to understand how the system can add value is stimulated. This often results in a more in-depth exploration of how the technology can be used to increase the return on investment.
By linking other types of events, such as those generated by devices on an operational system or from management-based devices, cause and effect programming in an integrated building system can add significant benefits when a site is active. The inputs don’t have to be facilities-related. Increasingly, smart solutions can include an interface to data-generating devices such as POS systems in retail applications, ATMs in financial institutions and logging systems in warehouses and logistics operations.
The information flow can be used as event triggers and will contribute to core operations.
Indeed, cause and effect programming can create Rules or scenarios that trigger other Rules and scenarios when the situation demands it. This allows the site status and ongoing events to control system attributes automatically, opening up a layer of flexibility that is difficult to achieve when systems are effectively ‘siloed’ to a single task.
If an integrator, consultant or end user limits their thinking about events to a simple on/off concept, then achieving a bespoke solution using cause and effect programming will not be possible.
However, by embracing the potential on offer from systems that use this approach, the potential to deliver flexible and bespoke smart solutions is available today, even for small and mainstream businesses.