Alexa: Take Control of My Building
Voice-controlled assistants aren’t built for buildings — yet.
Ten years ago, the name Alexa was a mere spec on the baby-naming landscape. Today, more than one-third of Americans are uttering the name (or the names of its voice-controlled cousins) every day to control the technology within their living spaces.
The residential Internet of Things (IoT) market is booming. According to a National Public Radio survey, 53 million Americans 18 and older own smart speakers in 2019. While the technology is still blooming in commercial settings, the built environment is poised for a giant technological growth spurt; however, it may have to leapfrog its own self-imposed roadblocks first.
Consumer vs. commercial
The residential IoT experience is magical — at least that’s what it feels like. Upon a vocal request, things happen. The technological process that occurs between a voice-controlled device, its own cloud network, and the target device’s cloud network and software is largely hidden.
And while residences may employ a handful of connected devices, buildings house thousands, convoluting the process.
“Complex control schemes in commercial buildings are designed a certain way to optimize energy and comfort,” said Andy McMillan, president and managing director, BACnet International, during a presentation at the 2019 AEE East Conference and Expo in Boston. “These processes are very structured and meticulously managed. One action affects 15 things. Feedback loops are involved. Everything’s much more complex.”
While organizations like McMillan’s BACnet have strived to create a standards-based community and infrastructure that promotes the integration of functions across suppliers and devices, manufacturers continue to push proprietary controls. This remains a consistent barrier to full BIoT integration, as the BIoT requires collaboration across all technologies regardless of the brand name on the equipment.
Security remains another obstacle for full BIoT integration. Connected buildings often relay tens of thousands of commands between cloud networks and software servers. Each one of these interactions serves as a point of vulnerability. A hack to a building’s comfort system could be extremely harmful to the facility’s operations and those who earn a living within it.
Despite these roadblocks, facility managers — especially those in smaller buildings — are clamoring for the “magical” simplicity of the residential IoT within their structures.
Part of this push is that building management systems (BMS) are costly. According to
Buildings.com, a traditional BMS carries an average price tag of $2.50 per square foot to deploy. This may be why BMS are historically only found in 10-20% of commercial real estate in the U.S.
Those who do utilize BMS often struggle accessing, utilizing, and analyzing the requisite building data without seeking assistance. On the flip-side, residential IoT systems, which include door locks, lighting systems, appliances, and more, are inexpensive and easy to implement. In fact, these systems can be completely setup by tech-savvy teenagers.
What's the solution
The solution largely starts inside HVACR manufacturing plants. Equipment manufacturers must strive to create smart, nonproprietary equipment loaded with apps and cloud connectivity. Facility managers can accelerate this process by only specifying such equipment. If a manufacturer fails to meet these standards, consider an alternative brand.
Late last year, Amazon entered the commercial market via its Alexa for Business, a digital assistant for office settings that’s capable of facilitating numerous tasks, including automatically ordering office supplies when stock runs low and much more. Thus, the table has been set.
The BIoT is drifting further from the future and much closer to the present. While facility management and building automation have been slow to change, there’s nothing slow about the IoT. Savvy firms are already researching how they can apply the IoT in their current and future buildings and challenging their vendors every step of the way. Those who haven’t started down this path have likely already fallen behind.
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