ARCHIVED - Wireless sensors for intelligent buildings

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December 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

It's the year 2015. You work for an organization with 500 employees, many of whom telecommute every other day. When you arrive at headquarters on alternate mornings, you're assigned a workspace at random. A sensor scans your badge and automatically sets the lights, temperature and ventilation according to your preferences. The sensor also adjusts your computer screensaver to display photos of your children, and puts your numbers on the telephone's speed dial.

Such a scenario may one day be possible as part of an ambitious multidisciplinary project launched by NRC. Its aim is to develop and link arrays of indoor environment sensors to help improve a building's environmental health, energy efficiency and maintenance, as well as the general comfort of its occupants.

"Our focus is mostly on commercial buildings, specifically office buildings," says Dr. Guy Newsham, who leads the lighting group at the NRC Institute for Research in Construction (NRC-IRC) in Ottawa. "We have the most expertise in this area, which is also ripe with clientele."

office space

Dr. Newsham says building sensors can be used to detect a wide variety of environmental conditions such as carbon dioxide, temperature, light levels, noise levels and occupancy rates. Such data could then be collated centrally where "some intelligence is applied" to decide whether it's necessary to change operational settings. "Signals would then be sent to actuators within the building systems to adjust an airflow rate, temperature or light level in ways that are better for office workers and management, and increase energy efficiency," he explains.

Under this three year project, led by the NRC Information and Communication Technologies (NRC-ICT) key sector, researchers from several NRC labs will integrate both existing and new sensing hardware, a wireless communication interface, and software-based analysis and feedback systems into a number of demonstration platforms.

The project has three main thrusts. One is to develop a network of indoor air quality sensors to measure pollutants, such as formaldehyde or toluene, for which no practical monitoring method now exists. "If the levels of a pollutant are too high, a sensor might tell a building system to increase the ventilation rate, or automatically open a window," says Dr. Newsham. "Or you may retrofit a new kind of filter based on that information."

"Developing such a sensor network is a significant technological challenge", adds Ruth Rayman, the NRC-ICT Key Sector Coordinator. "This project will involve scientists at several institutes across NRC, in addition to our 'clients' at NRC-IRC."

The second thrust will involve "mining" the data from existing sensors to improve decision-making processes. "Historical sensor data could tell you whether maintenance is needed now to avoid equipment breaking down later, which would significantly impact the cost of building maintenance," explains Rayman.

"For example, you might track temperature and vibration data over a long period of time in order to predict when the main fan in the HVAC system will fail, so you can do preventive maintenance," adds Dr. Newsham. Historic data patterns could also help organizations predict a building's energy requirements a few hours in advance, which is particularly useful on hot summer afternoons when power demand over the entire electric grid can reach critical levels. On these days, a variety of data — such as temperature, humidity and office occupancy — could be analyzed to help reduce the building's energy consumption in a way that least discomforts the workers.

The project's third thrust, led by Dr. Newsham's group, will focus on the general environment within buildings. "This is about exploring what we can do if we know not only how many people are in the building, but also where and who they are," he says. Currently, a conventional occupancy sensor can control lighting by determining whether a room is occupied, and then automatically increasing or dimming the lights, or changing the position of window blinds. But the sensor can't tell how many people are in the room, or who is there.

"But if a sensor — such as one located on an employee's security badge — knows a person's identity and preferences, it could say, 'Oh, it's Guy. He prefers the office lights at half of normal output,'" suggests Dr. Newsham. "Or if it knows that both Guy and Ruth are here, it could set the lights at our average preferred level. And if I need to work in my neighbour's office, it could set the lights to my own rather than my neighbour's preferences." Valuable health monitoring, such as fall detection, could also be added to such a "smart badge."

The same approach could be used to adjust ventilation and temperature, he adds. "If a sensor knows there are two or more people in the room, it could instantly increase the ventilation rate or adjust the temperature to an appropriate level for this group."

In collaboration with Simon Fraser University, Dr. Newsham's team is currently setting up a demonstration network at NRC-IRC's existing indoor environment lab, which features a mock up office space with six cubicles. "The idea is to bring in potential clients from industry and ask them to help us explore directions that such technology could take."

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