• United States

Forget ‘smart homes,’ the new goal is ‘autonomous buildings’

Sep 27, 20184 mins
Internet of ThingsSensors

IoT platform vendor Igor dreams of buildings that automatically adapt their behavior to the preferences of every occupant.

internet of things smart home
Credit: thinkstock

In 2018, the concept of a smart building is no longer surprising. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), so-called smart buildings and homes are everywhere, providing various degrees of intelligent management and control of various building systems, including lighting, HVAC, communications, and security. In most cases, however, those “smart” capabilities are still relatively limited, don’t always work together, and require a significant amount of human attention to function.

Dwight Stewart, founder and CTO of 5-year-old Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) vendor Igor, dreams of something much bigger and better. He sees the firm’s new Nexos smart building platform as the first step toward his vision of truly autonomous buildings.

Like living in a giant robot?

Via email, Stewart explained what he’s looking to see:

“Imagine a building that enhances each human experience. A building that automatically adapts its behavior to the preferences of each occupant and stakeholder, and astutely balances all these competing preferences. A building that configures itself to provide security, health, and safety in the most appropriate way considering all the relevant risks and conditions. A building that comforts, entertains, improves productivity, and reduces energy consumption while also balancing all these competing interests, as well as the competing preferences of the occupants. A building that automatically reaches out and engages the correct outside resources when it needs help, or someone inside needs help. [And] it does all this while balancing within its provided financial budget and with minimal human intervention or customization.”

A long driveway to autonomous buildings

If you ask me, that’s not just an autonomous building; that’s a robot you walk around in! And clearly, we’re not going to get there overnight.

According to Stewart, “The road to autonomy is a step-by-step journey” that starts by breaking down building systems into a network of modular, plug-and-play components. These systems would collect and analyze a wide variety of data, enabling physical buildings to be managed via software like a virtual machine, easily understood and reconfigured as needed.  

Next, he said, “autonomy is achieved one very focused area at time,” just as autonomous vehicles first perfected cruise control, then upgraded that to adaptive cruise control, and eventually added lane assist. In a building, the path to autonomy might begin with smart lighting that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to automate users’ lighting preferences. An autonomous building, Stewart said, could even implement light therapy. 

‘We are at the very early stages of developing the autonomous building’

Don’t think you’re about to move into autonomous building any time soon, though. Making these systems work in the real world won’t be fast or easy. Even if the technology were fully developed, Stewart acknowledged, autonomous building functions will require significant engineering effort and customization per installation.

 In addition, he cautioned, “most building systems have yet to be broken down into modular software-defined components that provide data. Therefore, most systems are built upon shallow foundations unable to grow a meaningful AI or adaptable buildings.”

Finally, even when autonomous buildings are commonplace, there will still be a need for occasional human intervention, especially if something goes wrong.

“It is incumbent upon the IoT platform to involve outside resources when necessary,” Stewart said. “Just as your body has an immune system that fights off most threats without you noticing, there are still times you get sick and need a doctor. We need human assistance to be that infrequent in a system as complex as the human body.”

For example, he concluded, “Nexos can now detect if a sensor is disconnected, and requires a human to make that replacement. In the future, it may request a drone service to perform the task.”


Fredric Paul is Editor in Chief for New Relic, Inc., and has held senior editorial positions at ReadWrite, InformationWeek, CNET, PCWorld and other publications. His opinions are his own.