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Implementing the IoT

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Karl Walker, marketing development manager at Beckhoff, addresses some of the confusion surrounding the technology used in intelligent buildings and gives us some advice on the implementation of the Internet of Things.

When it comes to technology, if everything is operating as it should we just carry on as normal, forgetting how easy our lives are made 99% of the time thanks to modern innovations. However, when something goes wrong, we are quick to lament its failings, leading us to a subconscious trail of thought that makes us highlight the potential shortcomings of what could be a revolutionary new product, rather than consider the benefits it could bring. 

If we consider some of the incredible technological advances from history, such as aviation, space travel, cars (both fuel-powered and electric), the internet and cloud technology, none are without their faults, but they pale into insignificance when compared to the ways in which we have profited from them. 

What is IoT?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is built on the idea that any object can connect to the internet. It 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.

This description has given rise to some rather wild theories about how technology is taking over the world and how we’ll eventually be ruled by robots, and there have been some well publicised stories of where the IoT has gone “wrong”. 

A famous example from a few years ago is the story of the man who spent 11 hours trying to make a cup of tea using a Wi-Fi kettle. Stories like this do mean the IoT will continue to be met with some scepticism, but they often involve cases of poor implementation in consumer products and therefore cannot be used as a reason to lose sight of IoT’s fantastic potential.

The whole idea of 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 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!

Industry 4.0 is often mistaken for IoT. Industry 4.0 was a phrase 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 contextual 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, more increasingly, the same outcomes are achieved via the implementation of IoT devices within the sub-systems.

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. It is disrupting long established business models and offering significant new opportunities to improve the efficiency of buildings, 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.

One solution to this usual piecemeal approach to Building Management Systems would be to use a single controller for all aspects of building automation. This 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. Furthermore, it 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, IoT is not the panacea to all control problems and there is no A to Z guide for its implementation. The reality is that it may not even be possible with some legacy equipment.

As with all problems, 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.

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