Babel Buster Network Gateways: Big Features. Small Price.
the Umbilical Cord between Controllers and Sensors
This is only possible by removing the logic from the logic controllers and putting it into standard software running on edge computing. And that is only possible by removing the umbilical cord between controllers and sensors, the wires that restrict them from taking more and better inputs.
Part 2 of 2
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the first part of our flexible building mini-series, we
explored how wireless digital control is the core to establishing
operational flexibility over a building's lifecycle, and why this leads
to a more comfortable, efficient and functional building environment.
Today we look at the formula for a truly open, low cost and future
The next order of building flexibility is to remove the specialized programming tools and compilers that
exist in today’s digital PLC’s which lock your building into a state of
inflexibility. Instead, we look at a roadmap for buildings with control
.Net using open tools and completely separating hardware from software.
Why are controls sequences compiled with
proprietary tools into logic controllers in the first place?
Technically speaking, direct digital controllers (DDC) and PLC’s do not
have very powerful onboard computers. They run on the firmware that has
to be programmed to each controller individually. A static program that
can’t be changed once is “flashed” into the hardware. If you want to
change the control sequence or add a new sensor, you have to reprogram
the firmware in a specialty software with line drawings to reflect the
changes in each controller. That software will only compile and run on
the chip that is specific to that controller and thus, the only way to
program it is using the specialized tool for that vendor. While this
may be fine for operational day one, it has many adverse effects after
that. Including limiting the number of people that can work on
that building in the future, to those that have the right programming
software, those trained to use that software, and a high cost to change
sequences or add sensors—making the building very inflexible. There are
solutions to this, such as the use of the Sedona
framework; however, these are mostly band-aids, layered on top of
existing proprietary controls and don’t get to the root of the problem.
These are special programs limited to building automation, meaning
there is a small labor pool to work on these controllers and limited
transferable skills between building automation and other industries.
Let's look at a real-world example. Something as simple as adding occupancy sensors to existing office building HVAC systems will have a dramatic impact on energy efficiency. Yet, it cannot be done to existing HVAC systems because that would require wiring sensors to controllers and reprogramming controllers individually. Running wire will be very expensive. Few contractors (i.e. those affiliated with the controller vendor) have access to the software or know how to use it. This limited resource (in many cases territorial, meaning there is only one per city) creates a monopolistic business environment. Again, driving costs to the point where ROI is unachievable. Yet, this is the precise reason why the current design remains; the system is to protect monopolistic and territorial business practices, which is bad for buildings, owners, operators, occupants and even our environment. The advent of open protocols and projects like BACnet or Haystack will not change this scenario as long as controllers must be programmed with compiled software on proprietary programming toolchains, using specialized vendor software that only they control and train people how to use. Under the current system, the cost of the upgrade will easily outweigh ROI, and we see the result, most buildings are 50% inefficient or even more.
Take the control sequences out of the controllers and into more powerful edge servers that run software that can be worked on and developed in standard languages opening the door for a vast resource pool to work on building automation, the entire global software developer community! Imagine what having access to the global software developer brain trust and market competition would do not only for the quality of the control algorithms but to the cost of developing and implementing them?
comparison might be the early days of the internet when you had to pay
a website developer $10,000's or $100,000's to create each custom
website individually. A costly and time-consuming exercise with a
limited number of specialized resources, much like the BAS controller
programming of today. Fast forward about 15 years, and platforms like
Wordpress standardize beautiful and functional template-based websites
on the order of $100's of dollars, maybe 10% of the initial cost, or
Wix that allows you to build your site for free.
Why hasn't this happened in building automation yet? There are a plethora of low cost, reliable, "dumb" i/o controllers on the market that follow instructions provided by a server. SCADA systems typically are designed in industrial factories. So why not in buildings? It is not due to a lack of available hardware.
networks, "dumb" slave controllers, programming control sequences in a
completely 100% digital environment using standardized software
languages with tools that any software engineer on the planet has
access to and knows how to use, we can completely revolutionize how our
buildings work. They will be fully programmable, flexible, efficient,
adaptive and then plugged into infinite ecosystems of new software,
tools, energy systems, human interfaces, smart algorithms and even
artificial intelligence (AI) programs. We can connect brains to
buildings. More importantly, they will be easy to service and maintain
over time, having not only a far lower cost to build, but also to
operate. The ROI is virtually infinite when comparing to the existing
wired approach today.
The final question remains. If it were so easy,
why isn't everyone just doing it? Putting all else aside, there are
always tradeoffs. This is as true with technology as it is with
engineering, business practices and even social balance. There
have been dramatic improvements in wireless technology; the truth is
that high throughput and high bandwidth communications like what we
have described, such as WiFi or Cellular require a lot of power to keep
a constant connection, or only transmit short distances and therefore
also require wires… sort of defeating the whole purpose of the
Existing WiFi networks are short-range, power-hungry and demanding to manage securely.
Advanced mesh networks allow real-time battery operated devices.
Wireless technologies that don't require wires and can run on batteries or energy harvesting communicate infrequently and unreliably, making them perform poorly for the kind of expectations we have for latency and operation in building systems. Compared to this, wired systems just work better. Fortunately, there are companies like our company Conectric Networks, working on what I call "hybrid mesh systems." Hybrid mesh systems leverage both constant powered and battery-powered nodes to provide the performance of wired networks, with the flexibility of wireless ones and enable the Jetsons building of the future. Thanks to editorial platforms like automatedbuildings.com giving myself and others from companies like Lynxspring, EnOcean, LoRa Alliance, Aruba Networks the opportunity to write articles like this, we can share our work and the great promise it brings to solving the inflexible building challenge.
About the Author
Phillip Kopp is a technology co-founder who fell into the world of building automation and energy efficiency over 20 years ago starting the first totally wireless RF sensor company for hotel guestroom automation, sold to the Somfy Group in 2009. He has since built or sold three other companies in financial technology and SaaS and has contributed to over 15 US Patents. Phillip is currently the CEO of Conectric Networks, whose goal is to install billions of wireless sensors into buildings, AI enabling to develop a massive virtual grid. Reducing 20% of global energy consumption and paving the way to a safer, more productive and healthier future.
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