November 2020
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“The Call of the Wild”
  Answering a Request for Proposal in Innovation
Nicolas WaernNicolas Waern
"The Building Whisperer"

https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicolaswaern/

https://twitter.com/BuildWhisperer

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To achieve this below - What would you do? How would you go about it?


“To develop a wireless, self-learning, platform-independent, open (software, API, hardware) control monitoring system that in a continuous optimal way can handle the situation with multiple conditions as described above. The system must be flexible and optimize the heat supply with considering the
room (the individual radiator) via the house (the in-house system) to the energy supplier and energy producer. The system shall strive for the lowest possible CO2 emissions for the existing heating system.”

What would you propose? (If anything?)

Background

The background to this article was based on a Smart City tender that we have been pushed through to the final round. A medium sized city in Sweden wanted companies to respond to their public tender that was focused on innovation. The municipality was after exactly what was written above clearly stating, that this solution does not necessarily exist in the market today. 

Upon reading what they were after I believe it would be something that most of (future) real estate stakeholders would like to see. All feedback on my thoughts would be appreciated greatly and I hope it might inspire some of you as well. The tender revolved around creating a Smart Heating for 130 buildings of mixed real estate where the first pilots were focusing on three schools. They had an existing IoT-Platform and some other contextual factors to adhere to, but nothing out of the ordinary.

This was the background for a Virtual BAS/BMS.

The dominant way of heating buildings is a radiator and pipe system with water as heat carrier with a thermostatic valve at each radiator that mechanically reacts to the room temperature. The conventional control technology at the radiator is rough and not continuously optimal for the heat supply to each radiator should be optimal from a system perspective (room-building-neighborhood-district) depending on the current room temperature needs and current global conditions (weather, presence, thermal mass, booking situation, etc.). There is thus a great potential here to develop new digitally based control and monitoring technology / system for both existing and new buildings as well could be used in e.g. cooling systems.

And this is (again) what they were after.

The one Solution to rule them all?

“To develop a wireless, self-learning, platform-independent, open (software, API, hardware) control monitoring system that in a continuous optimal way can handle the situation with multiple conditions as described above. The system must be flexible and optimize the heat supply with considering the room (the individual radiator) via the house (the in-house system) to the energy supplier and energy producer. The system shall strive for the lowest possible CO2 emissions for the existing heating system.”

That sounded very interesting. So, I pulled together some 7 other companies, formed a consortium of sorts, and sent in a proposal based on the thinking below. Part of the inspiration for the approach came from the amazing solutions from Passive Logic. And seeing they raised their Series A just now and that I have a good idea of what they do and don’t do, made me wonder what the future could look like. And I’ve also been looking at BrainBox AI that also raised some money earlier this year, and what they are doing in this space.

However, I’ve also been talking at the AHR expo about Obstacles and Opportunities for HVACR in the Next Decade where Troy Harvey (one of the founders of Passive Logic) also took part. And that made me think about more of where the future is heading. And since I was also a speaker for the Next Generation HVAC Controls: Open Discussion For Open Future, this lead led me down the path of openness. I wanted to at least try to see if I could come up with something that would be open enough based on what I believe is the future of building automation as described below.


nicolas

i. The past, present and Future of Building Automation

So that was what I set out to do. But it was not that easy. I was thinking about the API economy and the pitfalls, and if my thoughts would just be creating a Frankenstein’s monster as Brad White said to me once.. or twice. I saw the challenges if the municipality wouldn’t have one “throat to choke”, but also about vendor-lock in, knowledge transfer, skill-shortage gaps, IoT, AI/ML, stream processing, Digital Twins, data-strategies and basically anything and everything that I have learned over the last 5 years.

What would it need to be built on? I could of course create something of my own with some money, but I also did not want to re-invent the wheel too much if not necessarily needed. I talked to several industrial IoT players, and solutions from Loytec, Distech, EasyIO, Lynxspring, Schneider, HMS (the latter was because of a company they are working with, making it easier to distribute AI/ML algorithms from the edge to the cloud) and others. But I did not really find exactly what I was looking for. HMS had an industrial controller that took OPC UA to MQTT, but they did not have BACnet. Intesis had BACnet, but then it had to be daisy-chained together with the more industrial solutions and I was not really into that, even though it might be an option. However, A shout out to the Gateway Guy Eric Dunn, as well as the great Industrial Connectivity guru from Sweden Oliver Hammarstig who pointed me in the right direction. I did get to talk to representatives of their Industrial lab, so the bets are still out!

I was reminded of Ankalabs from the all-knowing Global Business development Manager at Siemens, Tyson Soutter, which was indeed a great reminder! Tyson knows the ins and out of Building Automation which he displayed in this amazing podcast session earlier.

I had gotten a showing of the Ankalabs solution in Atlanta this year while attending the AHR expo and last year in Chicago. It looks amazing and I am very fond of Sedona as well. But I was especially wondering if/how it would fit into the Swedish narrative. And to be honest I am wondering if it is needed to go that deep down into the open waters? But, maybe it is?

I found pieces of what I think I needed from a more commercial perspective, but it would have to be daisy chained together and that would add complexity as well as cost.

“Knowing whom to ask is one of the most important things in my world. “

As described, it was my original intent to achieve complete separation from hardware and software. It needed to be wireless, as well as future proof with bi-directional capabilities and AI-readiness to as much extent as possible. But the truth is that I have been focusing more on the bigger picture the last year, advising decision makers in multibillion corporations. Maybe I had to go back to “basics”?

The Pillars

One API to the building approach since that was how I started when I was at Go-IoT, and I still think they were on to something big in having BACnet/IoT everywhere, as in sensors as well as Cloud. I know their solutions are lightning fast and they have sensors that talk BACnet natively, which is part of what I was after.

But at the same time, I also try to look at what companies are doing when it comes to really pushing data around and what kind of architecture is needed. The OTA approach (Over The Air) that Tesla is known for, what Netflix is doing and what 5G, 6G can enable and all these things from an ecosystems perspective. I still do not believe that it makes much sense to build the future on yesterday’s technology or outdated views of what data means, based on a nostalgic perspective. Which is why I just wrote down some things that the solutions could/should adhere to that I could get into a solution in a couple of days.  

Some of the pillars that I believe should be in there:

        Remote access

        Separation of hardware and software

        Security out of the box

        Open source where possible

        Having the ability to connect to other parts of the building in a natural way (lighting, AV, access controls, etc)

        AI abilities as easy on the edge, sensor level, as in the cloud and the possibility to shuffle algorithms at will between any part of the system

        Ability to adhere to multiple stakeholders on top of the infrastructure, enabling a future ecosystem approach

        Democratizing Smart Building Involvement at all stages during the lifecycle

        Interoperability and one standardized API to the building

        Being able to work with ANY standard, not just domain specific ones such as Brick, Google, Haystack, REC etc.

        Wireless was a prerequisite and if possible, also wireless RS-485 to transport data between HVAC-R equipment if there were no real BAS/BMS on-site (I didn’t necessarily want Modbus because of potential tag-list problems, but at the same time Sweden only have Modbus so that could make some sense if I would be able to get it into how it would be installed).

        OTA possibilities and security ingrained, not just as an afterthought

        An idea that it would be code based as much as possible and not PID-loops, ladder logic, as such (which is what I remembered about Loytec that they had JSON APIs).

        Building agnostic, working in the same way for retail spaces as well as commercial entities

        Virtual BMS More akin to the PC-industry in the sense of install/uninstall BAS/BMS solutions on top that is in no way tied to the hardware side of things. Anything and everything interoperable/replaceable.

        Scalability in the API side of things as well as the DB, with “graphing” in mind

        Having a building, a portfolio, that would be aware of what it would be aware of in a Smart City context

The ecosystem approach

I wanted to create a BACnet environment in the building to keep it interoperable and then use some security something from a combination of Tempered Networks, Tosibox, with maybe some Totem thrown in there together with some other players. I knew that if I needed additional vendor vetting, based on the outcomes I was looking for, I would just reach out and pay Anthony Veri for some consultancy time to get me where I needed to be. Knowing whom to ask is one of the most important things in my world.

I looked at Finstack from J2 and I had a quick chat with Prabhu from Facilio, Dave Lapsley from Sentinll/Swarm Neuro, and Reza from Envio that all have great software solutions to run a virtual BAS/BMS. They all have stellar solutions that could more or less work from a “one API” to the building approach creating smart buildings over the top. A big thank you to all of them for taking the time to inform me about their solutions.

I also talked to the great Chad Ruch about what he saw in the space and he pointed me in the right directions to EasyIO and others.

I considered Digital Twin creation platforms as well but a lot of them were too industry specific, or just re-branded BI dashboards into Digital Twins over-night such as the offerings from Microsoft Azure and their Digital Twin solutions.

I wanted something that could ingest data from everything and could only find one that I liked. Their ability to handle real-time data, have scalable everything, visualizations from Unreal engine is still unparalleled from what I have seen so far, and it can be applied to any industry.

AI is a must these days which is why I talked to the head of AI at the largest player in societal transformation in the Nordics about what they had done in this space, having worked together for a Smart City AI-algorithm creation hackathon. And they said they have managed to put an algorithm on a Raspberry Pi that works with basically any building type, just optimizes the set points based on data-driven knowledge. That had resulted in about 15% savings, which of course, was very interesting.

I also had an interview scheduled for my podcast BeyondBuildings, with Kai Waehner, the real-time legend that is helping global giants transfer millions of messages per second, to see what he was working on. That helped as well with the data-strategy and the logic. The episode with Kai will come out in a month or so and I promise you that it will be amazing! Here are some good use-cases with Kafka. And if you haven’t read about it yet, you are in for a treat. I talked about it a year ago at a Blockchain conference in Mallorca, and I’ve learned exponentially more since then. Kafka is amazing.

I had already pulled in the CEO of a company that provide Intelligent Smart District Heating solutions into the early stages of the project. Their solutions would provide an important piece of the puzzle in making buildings aware of what they need to be aware of. In the sense that buildings need to be connected to a larger context. And of course, all of this in a Digital Twin of the entire system, that would be plug and play for a Digital Twin of the City, of the Municipality as well as any other discipline in a non-domain specific way.

The whole architecture of the proposal had been forming over the last 5 years anyway. I just needed to brush up on what was needed. The major benefits of being involved in industry associated groups such as Proptech Sweden, Digital Real Estate and Digital Twin Consortium and have an amazing network of 13000+ people, and also knowing technology and strategy I was able to find some answers to the remaining question marks quite fast. But looking back in hindsight, I should of course have asked Calvin, Zach and Brad for advice. And I am still interested in possibly crowd-sourcing a solution like this. But the question is who would be interested? Existing players protecting their legacy? Or new players wanting easier access to quality data in a scalable interoperable way?

Summary – “Frankensteins monster?” and “Who is it good for?”

But what was the result of a solution like this? A Frankenstein’s monster? Or did it tick all the boxes the municipality wanted, and more? How far should the open go? Should it be Sandstar level of openness even into the hardware parts?

There are amazing solutions out there and in an API economy it should not be that hard even though the meta-data tagging could be troublesome. However, done right from the beginning, and it should not present that much of a problem.

But the question is if it is needed and how “open” and self-learning it should get? How should it be serviced? By whom? And who should do the programming if anyone? Should it be actual programmers that write code into the building to become a cognitive something, augmented with python-scripts on a raspberry pie? And that the maintainability of the building would be more towards developers working with technical asset managers or SI capabilities? Could/should everything be done remote? And would there be a need for Sedona type controllers when an AI-augmented algorithm could optimize the buildings based on historic and real-time data?

In my opinion, any solution in any industry has to adhere to the three Vitruvian virtues. They have to be robust, useful as well as attractive, for any and all stakeholders. Maybe I was just over-thinking it? Sensors, gateway, open API, an edge gateway on the side, select any of the up and coming virtual BAS/BMS vendors and…done?

It is quite easy to take out data from a building to an API and then download a software suite of tools that are not tied into any hardware. That controller in the building could even be an Android/BACnet device, enabling the possibility of running a virtual BMS/BAS that adheres to some tagging standards to commandeer the building irrespective of vendor, augmented with some wireless sensors in driving the building from the future, with the help of AI on the edge as well as in the cloud and sensor level.

However, I also think some of the secret sauce in this is how to put it together and go from ingredients to a full recipe, and in what order. I omitted some of the things I see necessary, but I also wanted to do shout outs to the people that have amazing solutions in this space. It was a fun exercise to see if I still got it and I must thank my network for all the advice during the years! And the big question that I want to know, is. What would you do?

 

If you want to find out what the world is going to do a month, a year, a decade from now and how it might benefit you or anyone you know, reach out! I try to have a holistic understanding of what is needed to stand out from competition, in order to better advise on pros and cons, and be the strategy partner for both technology and organization-advice in a Smart World Environment (Construction/Industry/Smart Buildings and Cities).

Please reach out if you have any questions and comments or if you have any ideas on what I should write next!

Sincerely,
Nicolas Waern

“Smart World Architect” and Digital Transformation Expert –

Helping companies find their role in a Smart World Context
WINNIIO





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