April 2018

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Occupancy Analytics Innovations

Offer New Avenues for Discussions on Privacy

James McHale

James McHale,

Managing Director,

Occupancy Analytics

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Occupancy analytics in buildings is fast becoming a big business. The market for occupancy analytics in commercial office space will grow to $4.6bn by 2022, according to our latest report – Occupancy Analytics & In-Building Location Based Services 2017 to 2022. Growth in the occupancy analytics market is dependant on the sector overcoming the barriers along its course, but innovative solutions are now emerging to address key issues.

Security and privacy concerns continue to act as a barrier to occupancy analytics market growth. Passive tracking of ID cards, smartphones or other unique identifiers, also provides more information
than is necessary for occupant tracking, sparking privacy concerns.

“We only use active feedback, so our users don’t have to worry that we’re following them around,” CrowdComfort Co-Founder & CEO told Memoori in an interview last month. “Passive occupancy tracking technologies can enhance the value for the corporation but also make occupants feel uncomfortable,” he continued.

CrowdComfort does not track occupants but instead allows them to report issues through an app. They cannot, therefore, offer data on empty rooms that would power-down lighting or HVAC systems, for example. It is clear that passive occupancy monitoring of some kind is necessary to generate the energy efficiencies promised by the internet of things (IoT). The ideal technology needs to sense the presence of people in the office at all times but does so without the intrusivity that “surveillance” creates.

A year ago we reported on a US patent filing by BU professor Thomas Little entitled, “Sensory Lighting System and Method for Characterizing an Illumination Space.” The system of LED lights and sensors can detect people, their poses and objects in a room based on reflected light, then switch lights on or off, change lighting intensity, and even adjust the LED’s color to suit a situation.

By emitting a brief pulse of light and timing its reflective response, similar to radar and sonar systems, the Sensory Lighting System can differentiate between people, pets, and furniture, and identify actions such as sitting, standing, talking or even knitting. Once identified, the system can choose the appropriate lighting response, providing high functionality with the limited invasion of privacy. The system is also proving it’s useful in recognizing hand gestures, opening it up to other potential applications.

While there is no video involved, the increasing accuracy and ubiquity of Little’s technology may bring about the privacy concerns it hinted at addressing. It is still better, in terms of privacy and cost, than video surveillance but leaves room for improvement.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]More recently, a new type of sensor devised by technologists working at Purdue University detects carbon dioxide levels in order to indicate whether and where people are inside buildings. The low power sensor system is actually made up of a carbon dioxide sensor that triggers another sensor, which calculates the number of people in the room. The system saves energy by keeping the second sensor off until triggered.

The carbon dioxide sensor uses microelectromechanical technology, which involves the use of vibrating plates that are coated with a film. The film absorbs carbon dioxide, which triggers a change in the vibration frequency in the presence of the exhaled gas. While the focus of the technology’s development is low-cost, low-power occupancy tracking, it holds the added benefit of limited privacy intrusion.

“The big picture is that being able to turn off the heating and air conditioning in a sensible way. To do that you need to be able to tell when a room is occupied and how many people there are,” explains Professor Jeffrey Rhoads, who led the research on the postage stamp-sized sensor. “You could think of it as a smoke detector,” added Rhoads, “except that we are focused on carbon dioxide and not simply detecting; we are also measuring.”

Carbon dioxide monitoring can also help maintain air quality, as originally discussed in our 2015 article Smart Building Management System Combats Office Drowsiness. Typical outdoor carbon dioxide concentrations hover around 380 parts per million (ppm), but offices, classrooms, and other buildings were found with concentrations as high as several thousand ppm. The proliferation of carbon dioxide sensors would offer a range of benefit for building occupants and track occupancy with fewer privacy issues.

The correlation between lower cost sensors and fewer privacy concerns is an interesting one for the customer and could drive sales of these technologies when they reach the market. Looking into the long-term future, however, we should probably expect all these technologies and more to be working in tandem to provide a highly accurate digital view of our physical spaces. The status of the privacy debate at that stage is less certain, but innovations like these may offer a new avenue for discussion.



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