The era of talking buildings has arrived
A partnership between UNSW Sydney and an Australian business is creating smart building ecosystems that react to their surroundings and follow instructions from afar.
An Australian company is using a wireless solution developed by UNSW to roll out technology allowing buildings to monitor themselves – and even talk to your smartphone.
Known as EMIoT, the new wireless platform relies on LED exit signs as the backbone of a low-power meshed network that covers 99.9% of a building – even reaching underground carparks, pump systems and air conditioning. And WBS Technology, which is commercialising the technology, has installed it in more than 10 apartment complexes – the latest being at Castle Hill in the north-west of Sydney.
“All you need is to install the emergency lights, and they all automatically connect to each other, and that creates the network,” said Dr Wen Hu of UNSW’s School of Computer Science and Engineering. “The emergency lights can then be networked with other devices via various wireless technologies, including Bluetooth, which allows them to be controlled locally with a smartphone or via the internet from anywhere in the world.”
Each exit sign or emergency light acts as a node in the network, passing information back and forth across a building. Other devices can be connected to the network – ventilation and pumping systems, security cameras and sensors, access doors to common areas and halls – allowing all of them to be controlled and monitored remotely.
EMIoT is an example of the much-vaunted Internet of Things (IoT) network, in which all manner of devices – computers, lights, cars, home appliances, etc – can connect, interact and exchange data seamlessly with each other and across the internet.
Sensors as a service
What’s new is that WBS, an emergency lighting manufacturer in Sydney, is using the technology to transform itself into an entirely new business: instead of just making and selling emergency lights, it also offers ‘sensors as a service’. For a fixed monthly fee, WBS provides a network of emergency and other lights that monitor themselves, react to their surroundings and to remote commands, and can have other devices added to the same network.
At the retrofitted apartment building in Castle Hill, lights in the underground carpark dim when there’s no movement and brighten when there is, as do lights in hallways and common areas. If a light fitting fails, building managers know which one and how long it has been inoperative.
As the network expands, energy usage and the status of heating and cooling could be tracked, flow gauges report back on water usage and identify leaks, ventilation and pumping systems monitored remotely, and hot water systems checked for faults. Even residents trapped in an underground carpark would be able to communicate with building managers via an app.
Smart building ecosystem
“We’re actually creating a smart building ecosystem,” said Luke Gibbeson of WBS Technology. “There’s 14 buildings in this apartment complex, and we’ve installed a networked emergency lighting solution throughout them without any cabling and with no supporting network infrastructure.
“Our communications gateway looks like a standard exit sign, which relays other emergency lights communication to the cloud and acts like a normal exit sign – so it’s a plug-and-play system. You can install in a new building or retrofit into an older one, like this one,” he added. “As more IoT devices are installed, they can be added to the network, and all managed remotely via a cloud-based service, or locally through a smartphone app.”
The collaboration between UNSW engineers and WBS Technology began under UNSW’s TechConnect incubator program, funded the NSW government’s Boosting Business Innovation Program for small-to-medium enterprises. This led to an Australian Research Council Linkage project between the two, culminating in an Innovation Connections Grant funding the commercialisation of the technology developed by UNSW.
Originally, WBS approached UNSW about creating a network of emergency lights using Zigbee, a low-power, low data rate, close proximity wireless network used by medical devices. However, emergency lights can often be in out-of-the-way places where communications are unreliable.
So Hu, working with Associate Professor Salil Kanhere and Professor Sanjay Jha and a clutch of PhD students at UNSW’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, including Jun Young Kim, worked on developing a meshed network of different communications technologies that could work seamlessly and provide a reliable network across a plethora of locations.
They eventually hit on a meshed combination of LoRa used by wireless sensors for health care monitoring; 6LoWPAN, a new Internet protocol for small devices; and RPL, an experimental network protocol for point-to-point communications where stability and low data rates are an issue. They then created a gateway that bridges the different technologies with cellular telecommunications networks, allowing it all to connect to computer servers in the cloud. They then added Bluetooth to provide localised control via smartphones.
A product within two years
Within two years of applying for the initial TechVouchers funding and approaching UNSW as a research partner, WBS now has a commercialised smart building solution, and UNSW made valuable research progress in a new field.
“It’s a great example of an enterprise with a technical challenge it needs to solve, and UNSW having the people with the knowledge and engineering smarts to find the solution,” said Professor Ian Gibson, Associate Dean (Industry and Innovation) at UNSW’s Faculty of Engineering, who oversees industry collaboration. “In this case, the solution is set to transform WBS’s business model, and create a new ‘sensors as a service’ market where none existed.”
Hu now works as a part-time consultant to WBS Technology, while his student, Jun Young Kim, joined the company once he completed his PhD, and now manages the software development team at WBS Technology that designs, implements and verifies its products. “At the end of the research, I was convinced that this was the best solution for the future of smart building services,” he said. “You could say I helped create my own job.”
Innovation in action
Working with industry in this way was essential to get innovation out of laboratories and into the real world, said UNSW’s Dean of Engineering, Professor Mark Hoffman. “At UNSW, our students and researchers are not only embedded in an environment where emerging technologies are created. They don’t just learn knowledge and skills, but how to work as teams, and innovate to solve open-ended problems. Our partnership with WBS Technology is a great example of this.”