Self-monitoring lighting supports a smart building network

Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

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An Australian company is rolling out wireless technology across the country that allows buildings to monitor themselves and report problems autonomously — and even talk to your smartphone.

Known as EMIoT and developed by UNSW, the 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 car parks, pump systems and air conditioning. Emergency lighting manufacturer 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, from 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. Once operating, 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.

The collaboration between UNSW and WBS began under UNSW’s TechConnect incubator program. This led to an Australian Research Council Linkage project between the two, culminating in an Innovation Connections Grant.

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 Dr Hu and his colleagues 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 healthcare 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 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.

WBS is now using the technology to transform itself into an entirely new business, offering what it calls ‘sensors as a service’. For a fixed monthly fee, the company 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 could report back on water usage and identify leaks, ventilation and pumping systems could be monitored remotely and hot water systems could be checked for faults. Even residents trapped in an underground carpark would be able to communicate with building managers via an app.

“We’re actually creating a smart building ecosystem,” said Luke Gibbeson of WBS. “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. 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.”

Image caption: Dr Wen Hu checking one of the hallway lights meshed into the smart building network. Image credit: Quentin Jones/UNSW.

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