November 2020

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Open Systems: A Key Pillar to the Mass Adoption of Building Automation Technology


Author: Omar Tabba,

VP Products & Solutions, BrainBox AI

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What Does Open Mean?

In a thought provoking Harvard Business School paper, Opening Platforms: How, When and Why?  Thomas Eisenmann and his colleagues do a deep dive into the definitions and strategies that have evolved as a result of open platforms. According to them:

“A platform is “open” to the extent that: 1) no restrictions are placed on participation in  its  development,  commercialization  or  use;  or  2)  any  restrictions—for  example, requirements   to   conform   with   technical   standards   or   pay   licensing   fees—are reasonable  and  non-discriminatory, that  is,  they  are  applied  uniformly  to  all  potential platform  participants.”

Open platforms have allowed developers to be system agnostic, giving them freedom from proprietary products and standards. End users are free to choose the best product, device, or service for their unique situation. Open has spurred innovation at tremendous speed.

One of the best examples of this is the internet itself. One would be hard pressed to name any industry that has not been profoundly changed by it. From banking to commerce to healthcare, the internet is the backbone on which many industries rely to deliver their products and services.

Linux is another powerful example of the potential of open platforms. It is the most well-known open software platform and is the operating system for popular products such as space robots, autonomous cars, smartphones, wearables and much of the internet. The wide variety of products running on Linux proves that open drives innovation. What Linux does best is allow other software developers, whether proprietary or open source, to build and create new software that extends the functionality of the device embedded with Linux.

Open in Building Automation

With the embrace of open protocols by the HVAC controls industry over the past 20 years, the meaning of “open” has broadened. In a recent Monday Live industry discussion, the panelists devoted much of the time to discussing “open”, attempting to define the term and where this approach will take the industry.

One of the participants noted that within the building automation industry “open means different things to different people.” While many companies claim to have open systems, the speaker suggests 3 questions should be posed when determining if the system is truly open:

       Is the system accessible, supported and does it compete within the free market?

       Are both the end-product and the platform designed to communicate with other systems via open protocols and standards?

       Once deployed, can it be supported and maintained by a free market?


In the building automation world, the Niagara Framework is an example of an open platform where developers can build applications, drivers, or services and then market them. The value added by these developers is only possible because the Niagara Framework meets the three criteria mentioned above. 

Open is a Playground for Innovation

Open platforms in building automation such as the Niagara Framework, allow system integrators to extend the system beyond the initial design. Niagara allows system integrators to connect a variety of systems – lighting, HVAC, security and much more.  Because the platform is open, third-party software and hardware can be easily integrated.  The system integrator may choose to monitor energy consumption via dashboards, deliver diagnostics that help building management or add a touchscreen to one of the Niagara connected systems.  The Niagara Marketplace showcases many Niagara-based products that extend the framework with capabilities that range from AI to Zigbee. 

 Collision Course to Innovation

Incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into a building’s system is now reality. In 1997, when Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov in a series of chess matches, it generated a pivotal moment in the public’s perception of AI. Two years later, Tridium released the initial iteration of the Niagara Framework.

Now, twenty plus years later, Niagara has over 900,000 instances worldwide and Niagara based systems can utilize AI in multiple ways. Amazon’s Alexa can be connected to a Niagara system, allowing facility managers to connect BMS devices to devices that use Alexa, such as the Echo. Facility managers can speak commands to their BMS system, and the system will respond.

Another application developed by BrainBox AI creates an autonomous HVAC system by applying AI. After learning the thermal profile of the building, the AI will monitor and predict future states of the building by incorporating the energy usage history supplemented by additional data feeds such as weather forecasts and utility tariff information. The AI will then write back to the HVAC system to make micro-adjustments to the HVAC equipment that deliver better occupant comfort, reduced energy consumption and lower carbon emissions.  All enabled by simply adding the Brainbox AI driver to the Niagara Framework.

 Adding Additional Innovation into Niagara Systems

The flexibility of the Niagara systems is key. Imagine being responsible for a school system with 100 buildings. Half of the schools have systems built with equipment from Vendor A while the other half have systems built on equipment from Vendor B. The facility team that has implemented the Niagara Framework will be able to manage both systems in one system. Adding AI will allow the school system to further optimize the energy efficiency of the buildings, reduce operating costs and meet their sustainability goals

During the process of onboarding the AI to your building, volumes of data are extracted from the HVAC system that would otherwise remain hidden from the facilities team.  Pulling this data up to the cloud provides the opportunity to augment the BMS data with weather information, tariff rates, occupancy information, pollution data, and more. Pushing the augmented data streams through an AI model allows concrete decisions to be written back to the BMS. This allows the system to self-optimize, generating greater efficiency and a significant reduction in energy costs. Other benefits include an increase in occupant comfort, resulting in fewer hot/cold complaints from occupants. The BMS data is leveraged and is now delivering new value to the building owner and the occupants, all while using their existing assets. The HVAC system is self-optimizing because it is now autonomous.


About the Author

Omar Tabba leads the product management and solution engineering functions at BrainBox AI. He has over 15 years of experience in the smart building space and has held technical, sales and executive roles. Prior to joining BrainBox AI, he led the digital solutions team at the General Electric Current business unit, where he supported the sale of Current’s digital solutions to Fortune 200 companies as well as the product, marketing and business development functions. Before joining GE, Omar co-founded YWire Technologies, a venture backed lighting control startup.

A patent holder, Omar has applied building automation and energy management systems across multiple vertical markets (e.g. retail, commercial office, education) and in portfolios ranging from one building to several thousand.



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