Standardized IT protocols and edge integration will drive the evolution of building automation.

An overhead crane moves on a collision course toward an unsuspecting worker. A water pump feeding a building’s air conditioning system starts vibrating abnormally. A carbon dioxide leak in a brewery fermentation system spews gas into occupied areas. Each of these scenarios represents a point at which disaster could either strike or be averted. Which way things play out hinges on the level of situational awareness that exists at the edge of each site.

Situational awareness is knowledge of the current environment and projections of future environments across time and space. Successful decision-making relies on situational awareness, and its absence can put life and property at risk. In the three scenarios above, actionable situational awareness requires both direct observation of the physical world (such as CO2 gas detection by a sensor ) and a combination of declared and inferred contextual data from the logical world (such as location, identity, and applications in use). Edge IoT data originates in machines, while contextual data comes from edge data networks that link people and machines.

The conjunction of edge data and context is called hyper-awareness, and its business value stems from connecting, protecting, and analyzing the interactions of machines and people. Hyper-aware metadata can be shared across business applications, allowing new use cases just by tapping into available data, without replacing any infrastructure.

The building automation and IT industries have devoted huge resources over decades to create connected facilities that touch every machine in the building. Connectivity is essential for sharing data, but is not by itself the endgame. The edge networks that connect us also generate their own contextual information, and if that goes untapped, a connected building can’t achieve hyper-awareness or deliver the safety, efficiency, productivity, profitability, and other benefits derived from situational awareness.

Hyper-aware buildings are a fusion of edge IoT systems and network-generated context. IoT devices are the eyes and ears of the facility, and IT systems provide contextual information as well as serve as a backbone for facility-wide communications.

The evolution of automated buildings

Building automation has evolved alongside factory, consumer, and process automation systems. Starting in the early 1980s, the work was focused on better ways to reliably connect machines at a price point that was practical even for low-priced sensors and actuators. At that time, telephones, fire alarms, access control, closed-circuit television, power management, lighting, and comfort systems operated independently from one another over dedicated cabling.

As IP networks emerged, facilities managers saw the value of converging systems into a common backbone and standardizing on ways to share data. Many building automation standards emerged from this process—including BACnet, LonWorks, KNX, DALI, and others—utilizing gateways as on-ramps to the IP backbone. Sensors, actuators, displays, and other building systems were embedded with these technologies, and the promise of truly smart buildings was one step closer.

The problem was these were all competing, noninteroperable standards with different physical layers and protocols. Since they could not interoperate, customers typically selected and stuck with one technology. Intense price competition meant that few vendors made money from selling devices, so instead, they embedded manufacturer-specific features that locked customers into using their brand of products. That included adding manufacturer-specific extensions to open standard protocols like BACnet, so that the full range of features could be accessed using only that vendor’s gear.

Securing building automation networks was an afterthought, at best, so systems were often physically and logically isolated to protect them from attack. The combination of proprietary protocols and isolation made the data they carried inaccessible to other systems. The result was islands of isolation.

The rise of hyper-aware buildings

The innovations that enable buildings to become situationally aware didn’t arise from smart building control vendors; they came from the IT industry.

Enterprise IT buyers have long mandated edge cybersecurity, open data exchange, application awareness, and specialized location services, which the building automation buyer was, until very recently, unable to obtain. Advanced IT cybersecurity systems must identify every user and device before granting permission to access the edge network. This identity data can be shared with other authorized applications, enabling a rich suite of services based on who—or what—is on the edge network, how network resources are being used, and the real-time security posture of network users.

Since IT networks are the backbone of businesses, business applications that optimize inventory and monitor time and motion need accurate edge location data about assets and people. This location data, like the other services described above, is accessible to authorized applications.

While large building automation companies still employ vendor lock-in based on proprietary solutions, newer vendors have bucked the trend by producing open standards-based IoT sensors and actuators. EnOcean, iBeacon, Eddystone, and other protocols are open and accessible, and many manufacturers have latched on to them to create open, interoperable building control devices and systems.

When identity, applications in use, security posture, and location data coming from edge IT networks are mashed up with open IoT sensor and actuator data, the building becomes hyper-aware. The richer the set of available edge data, the more readily new applications can be added by just repurposing existing data flows. The infrastructure essentially becomes a future-proof platform on which new services can be built. The IT technology to accomplish this exists today, and the good news is that even legacy IoT devices can be tapped for data if the payloads can be interpreted.

The most sophisticated IT networks go one step further by interfacing with wireless edge IoT devices directly from radios embedded within or plugged into Wi-Fi access points. That means IoT sensors can be deployed virtually anywhere within a facility on an as-needed, “lick-and-stick” basis using existing IT infrastructure and without installing any new cabling. Instead, the Wi-Fi access points serve as secure edge gateways.

Key benefits of hyper-aware smart buildings include enhancing human productivity, energy reduction, health compliance, and physical safety.

The first step of the journey

No organization will be able to achieve hyper-awareness for every building project overnight. The journey starts by identifying the strategic goals you are trying to achieve for your organization. Goals will vary by organization and department, so it is important to clarify from the outset the gains expected from a hyper-aware facility. Every facilities planner should focus on this target because the business benefits are just too compelling.

Next, identify what key milestones need to be achieved. One of the reasons many IoT projects fail is because companies become enamored with shiny new technology and lose sight of the business objectives. Do not invest in system and technology until you understand the steps, timing, and stakeholder support needed to drive your project to success.

Be certain not to fall in love with a solution to the exclusion of interoperability and openness. With interoperability comes flexibility in your choice of devices and vendors.

Finally, consider where computing needs to be done and ensure that your solution supports this decision. Are IoT workloads moving to the cloud for processing, or is processing happening at the edge or according to a hybrid model? Locating compute at the edge speeds system response times, whereas cloud services are massively scalable. Think through which architecture works best for you.

It’s time to reassess how the facilities professional thinks about smart buildings. Edge connectivity is necessary but not sufficient to achieve strategic corporate objectives that depend on situational awareness. Hyper-awareness is the solution of choice for smart buildings because it provides a future-proof foundation on which an almost limitless set of services can be built without ripping and replacing infrastructure.