There has been a great deal of hype concerning smart buildings, primarily focused on how building managers can do better fault detection and automate set points. What’s missing in this conversation is the critical understanding of how occupants and guests use the building.
The author Jane Jacobs in her 1958 article for Fortune magazine, “Downtown is for People, stated,
“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”
We can take that same point and bring it down a level from cities to built spaces. We should fit buildings to how people will use them, not just how we want people to use that space. By focusing on that, we can make buildings more useful, sustainable, and smarter. We can also garner insights to help us to make built spaces safer and more comfortable. Technology can help us get there if we design and deploy it sensibly.
Atrius Building Solutions
Two of the most important things driving comfort and energy usage in buildings are lighting and heating or cooling. Acuity Brands is North America’s largest provider of commercial lighting systems and a leading supplier of building management controllers such as our Distech Controls Eclypse products. Our Atrius building solutions software aggregates performance and operational data to help facility managers best understand utility usage and manage their lighting and HVAC systems. Atrius solutions go beyond improving mechanical performance; they make it possible to adapt facilities to how people use the built spaces. With Building Insights, Atrius Locator, and Personal Wayfinder, building managers can optimize systems performance, report on energy usage, record carbon impact, track and trace objects around spaces, and provide wayfinding and location services.
Evaluating Existing Technologies and Platforms
To better adopt buildings to how people will use them, Atrius took a hard look at how to restructure, integrate, and make actionable the wealth of data within these spaces. First, we determined how all the components of a building relate to each other. This information enabled us to understand the spaces within the building, their uniqueness, and how they’re interconnected. We also wanted our resulting products to be open and utilize industry standards so our partners could leverage the software as easily as we did. Finally, we had to ensure seamless delivery of product updates and changes to our large, existing customer base. Evaluating existing technologies and platforms led us to use Digital Twins as the basis for this new platform.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, Digital Twins allow us to create a digital representation of a physical object, in this case, a building or a set of buildings. Then, we use this digital representation to map relationships between the objects that make up a physical building, system, or process. The concept itself is not new; it was first introduced in 2002 by Michael Grieves and is a virtual version of what NASA has been doing in the space program for decades. For example, if you watched the movie Apollo 13, you saw them using a physical twin of the command module and lunar lander to figure out how to bring the astronauts home. In our case, we needed the ability to map out the relationships between objects within a physical space, like the number of floors in a building, the offices on each floor, thermostats, and controllers.
As I mentioned earlier, a key goal was for our Atrius platform to be as open as possible and to leverage industry standards. Towards that end, we chose the RealEstateCore (REC) ontology or interoperable schema. This decision enabled us to focus on the solutions we are building rather than on designing our own data model. We also gained the advantage of having a language we can use to describe the models and interfaces (Digital Twin Definition Language or DTDL) based on open W3C standards such as JSON-LD. Another advantage is the latest version (currently in public preview) of REC integrates the two standards as a result of an agreement between the Brick Consortium and RealEstateCore. From there, we focused on finding the right platform.
While we certainly considering the possibility of building our own Digital Twin platform, even though it was possible, doing so would have required significant time and financial investments from our internal teams. So instead, we decided to use the Microsoft Azure Digital Twin service, thus enabling us to focus on building exceptional customer solutions as fast as possible without compromising quality or innovation. Existing Atrius solutions utilize several Microsoft Azure services, including Azure IoT Hub and Azure Event Hub. Adding in Azure Digital Twin and Azure Data Explorer has been seamless. The real point, however, is what these technologies and services empower us to do for our customers.
As I mentioned, a key goal was for our platform to be as open as possible and to leverage industry standards. Towards that end we decided to use the RealEstateCore ontology or interoperable schema. This enabled us to focus on the solutions we are building rather than on designing our own data model. It also has the advantage of having a language we can use to describe the models and interfaces (Digital Twin Definition Language or DTDL), and is based upon open W3C standards such as JSON-LD. The other advantage is the latest version (currently in public preview) of REC is a result of an agreement between the Brick Consortium and RealEstateCore to integrate the two standards. From there we focused on finding the right platform. We did an evaluation of building our own Digital Twin platform and while feasible it would have required a significant investment by Acuity in both time and resources. To enable us to focus on building customer solutions and do it in as short a time as possible, we decided to use the Microsoft Azure Digital Twin service. Our solutions already utilize a number of Microsoft Azure services including Azure IoT Hub and Azure Event Hub. Adding in Azure Digital Twin and Azure Data Explorer has been seamless. But the real point is what we can do with these technologies and services.
Atrius products already collect empirical data about a building’s systems; now, our engineering teams have a clearer understanding of what’s happening with objects within built spaces, too. Combining Digital Twins, information collected in Eclypse controllers and lighting systems, object tracking, and building occupants expands our understanding of how people use spaces. Applying this deeper knowledge is how we deliver on Jacobs’s vision to tailor buildings to the people using them.
Atrius Locator is an example of one such product that leverages real-time asset tracking to optimize business operations and reduce costs. Atrius Locator is the first of our solutions to leverage our new Microsoft Azure Digital Twin-based platform. The goal is to apply this new technology to Atrius solutions portfolio-wide and as an open source for our partners’ benefit. Planned enhancements include automated decision-making built on Machine Learning and AI.
Microsoft’s IoT Show
We’re premiering a few videos at Microsoft’s IoT Show. Each details how our Atrius Locator solution optimizes our innovative platform and includes product demos.