The Converged World Of Automation and Communication

Don’t blink! If you do, you may miss some of the rapidly developing changes occurring in the technology sector.

Moore’s Law states processing power doubles every 18 months. But once technology is implemented, changes occur even more quickly than that. Now, with the Internet of Things (IoT) on the horizon, the Apple Watch strapped to users’ wrists, and integration and interconnectivity between sensors and devices yielding robust data, seamless automation of all kinds of systems and technologies will continue at warp speed.

Today, building automation and communication systems are becoming increasingly tied to the IoT. According to Eric Free, vice president, Internet of Things Group and general manager, Smart Homes and Buildings Division, Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., the IoT makes technology more affordable for owners and operators of small, medium and enterprise locations and yields significant energy and other benefits tied to building automation.

According to Intel’s research, “Designing Smart Buildings with Internet of Things Technologies,” the IoT is also helping solution providers “design building management systems at a fraction of the cost using technologies that deliver comprehensive security and help extract valuable insights.”

Intel, which has both an IoT group and a sector focused on smart homes and buildings, said the ultimate goal is to augment existing systems, bringing them up to their full operational potential.

“In most cases, achieving those goals means moving away from proprietary systems and avoiding unwanted dependency on a single service provider or long-term service contract,” Free said. “Implementing a holistic automation system remains a goal for many building owners.”

The convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) continues to accelerate interconnectivity. Asset-intensive organizations can no longer afford to keep IT and OT separate, because of a number of factors, including as the increasing amount of highly actionable data from mobile field workers, equipment and operational processes.

Driving tangible results

“This is a significant change in the way facilities owners can monitor, measure and control their buildings,” Free said. “What we see is a proliferation, a massive spreading of computing capabilities with almost pervasive connectivity, which allows for little and low cost to connect the sensor to the network via wired or wireless infrastructure to something owners want to measure and get immediate insights into what’s happening.”

These widespread changes are netting real results. Energy management is one component, Free said.

“For the first time, you can see in real time how much energy a pump or other device is using,” he said. “With this information, you can start to fine-tune your building in a way you couldn’t before, fundamentally using compute and connect functionality. We see different applications and benefit to this from our research. Security, fire and life safety, electrical, occupancy all benefit from the IoT trend. As the cost of computing and connectivity goes down, it becomes more accessible, more widely distributed. This is proving a strong, tangible return on investment to solve new problems in building management.”

With the IoT, sensors, data devices, control and interaction points will make the building more intelligent than ever before.

“Systems work together, and the result is a much more integrated set of solutions that provide greater value to owners, managers and occupants,” Free said. “In a few years, the building will start to become more comfortable, saving dollars in a more intelligent way.”

Electrical contractors (ECs) will play a critical role in deploying IoT solutions because you can’t get there without infrastructure connectivity.

“[ECs] will be critical in making this happen,” Free said. “You need power and networking and need to wire 24-volt connectors to IoT sensors. The contractors and tradespeople who understand the operational and traditional nuances and who are also familiar with networking and how to get the data to where it can be acted upon will be important to this entire process.”

The result of this hyper-connectivity has also been more powerful devices, and that lends the ability to put a smart sensor in a conference or operational room and collect data in real time, analyze it quickly, and pass it to the cloud. Free said there will also be resulting continued evolution in connectivity.

“Wireless and mesh networking is becoming more reliable and robust,” he said. “At the applications level, there will be more specific applications to deploy, with reduced costs. There’s a tremendous amount of innovation in the form of a truly intelligent building that can respond to what’s happening in the building itself.”

Out with proprietary silos of operation

Evan Ackmann, commercial lighting technology manager, Crestron Electronics, Rockleigh, N.J., said that adaptation and changes in interconnectivity create intelligent building subsystems in concert with each other instead of acting as independently controlled silos.

“Lights can create heating waste, which adds to the [heating, ventilating and air conditioning] load,” Ackmann said. “Motorized window treatments can increase or decrease heating load but may add to the lighting requirements. All automation systems are interdependent, and treating them as such empowers facility managers to run their buildings more effectively.”

As network integration continues, the controlling automation system will become more interdependent.

“Devices, in general, are controlled in tiers—everything that is required to keep a room up and running is located within that room,” Ackmann said. “This makes the room independent from the other rooms in the building for standard operation. As you move higher up, the granularity of control is lower, but the impact is greater; services such as centralized time clocking can modify the state of an entire building without knowing anything about an individual room.”

Energy codes are nearing the point where networked lighting controls may become mandatory.

“Of course, the IoT and general consumer awareness contributes to this, but, in general, just meeting some of the more advanced energy codes around the nation drives the adoption of networked lighting control and advance control algorithms,” Ackmann said.

Mobile apps/remote connectivity to control building automation is also becoming more commonplace, especially in bring-your-own-device cultures, Ackmann said.

“Mobile devices are being used not just for control in spaces but also to identify users and drive presentations in conference rooms; they’re acting as the digital hub for an employee’s work,” he said.

IP communications

Andy Stadheim, president of LineQ, manufacturer’s representative for Barix in North America, Minneapolis, said the network and networked devices are having an impact on communications systems and their capabilities.

“More devices are moving to the network, so you find communication systems are supervised and backed up with power over Ethernet [PoE],” he said. “Redundancy is also key. Networking allows IP [Internet protocol] phone systems to be integrated into the building paging and notification systems.”

For the installing contractor, IP addresses and networking brings added benefits to communication systems.

“The concept of giving a device an IP address and being able to supervise it as well as to receive notification when it goes offline is very attractive to integrators,” Stadheim said. “They can now setup and manage multiple devices via a network connection.”

Migration path to IP

While communications systems are making strong moves to IP, legacy analog systems are still in place, said Samuel Shanes, chairman of Talk-A-Phone, Niles, Ill.

“IP is definitely the future, but there are large backbones and infrastructures that have to be upgraded to IP, and that’s not a small endeavor for any institution, given the overall costs,” Shanes said. “But once these users have overcome that hurdle and with the economy improving, all kinds of opportunities in IP communication solutions open up.”

Shanes said building automation also has an effect on communication systems, and that trend will continue with the move to and proliferation of IP-based devices.

“There are building automation software systems we can integrate with to accomplish mass notification and you can get an announcement to a whole building or part of a building or a floor,” he said. “That’s developed because companies from the building automation side of the business now have the kinds of capabilities that let our systems talk to theirs and also integrate with our equipment.”

Overcoming the analog-to-IP hurdle can also be accomplished with migration paths provided by equipment manufacturers. For example, Talk-A-Phone’s analog paging systems have head-end software, coupled with a hardware device, to accept and convert an analog signal and transmit it over the network to make an announcement.

“We can accomplish this remotely, from anywhere from the world,” Shanes said. “Perhaps you have a campus of schools, and the superintendent says there is an emergency. Before, he had to call each school individually, but now he has control over the entire system. And that communication can be by individual room, floor or school and even initiate different announcements depending on the threat and the appropriate action. Or, communications can be issued to a company with locations all over the world in the event of a security issue or breach. It’s a powerful solution, and you couldn’t do that without IP.”

IP and network connectivity also allows the layering of different messages, for example, using audio, visual, SMS, text, etc., to get critical information out. In addition, first responders can monitor the different types of conversations, so they have more information and know what they will arrive to on response.

“You can push relevant information out quickly to everybody who needs it in multiple layers, and that’s what saves lives,” he said.

The benefit proposition to worldwide, integrated communications and building automation is huge. Interconnectivity brings real-time information and the ability to respond to potential security issues. The IoT is a consummate driver in this trend, with sensors providing detailed information and data from across the enterprise. The building of the future is responsive and automated without the need for direct user interaction. Of course, those responsible for the infrastructure will make it all possible.

About the Author

Deborah L. O'Mara

Freelance Writer

O’MARA writes about security, life safety and systems integration and is managing director of DLO Communications. She can be reached at or 773.414.3573.

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