Smart cities, smart buildings
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Councils and building managers both have a great deal to gain from embracing the Internet of Things (IoT), as Sam Fenwick finds out

We kick off with a look at one ICT company’s work to bring the benefits of IoT to councils. Wales-based Pinacl Solutions started its work in the IoT and smart city place around two and a half years ago with Newport City Council. Back then, Pinacl operated a fibre network in the city, along with public Wi-Fi for all the council’s public-facing venues and buildings, and a small concession city centre Wi-Fi network (both the latter use technology from Ruckus Networks).

Pinacl then added an open access LoRaWAN network, which it owns and operates. According to Mark Lowe, Pinacl’s business development director, this came about because the council was “looking to see if IoT could help them drive some efficiencies across various departments and they had the potential to deploy a few pilot use-cases if [an IoT] network existed”. He adds that Pinacl’s decision to build and operate the network made the process much faster than if the council had tried to procure for its own use.

As Newport City Council owns and operates the city’s recycling centres, Pinacl is working with it to “find an effective sensor that we install into [large] recycling bins that measure how quickly [and] how often [they become full]”. This will help the council to avoid emptying half-full bins and ensure that full bins don’t go days before emptied, while also profiling which types of recycling bin fill fastest. Lowe says one issue is that some of the bins “have a huge steel rod down the middle of them”. This can result in rogue readings, so some fine-tuning is taking place.

Smart recycling bins are one useful application of IoT in a council context, but some fine-tuning can be required

Pinacl is also working on sensors that will measure the depth of water at a floodgate. “There are plans to deploy more sensors further afield in the tributaries and streams up river to sense if a significant amount of water is on its way toward the city.” While the estuary of the River Usk runs through the city, Lowe says this “is not really the main cause of flooding”, in marked contrast to surface drainage. Unfortunately, key surface drainage areas are “typically right underneath steel manhole covers which are one to two inches thick, and although LoRaWAN [has a] reasonably penetrative signal, it won’t go through [these]”, says Lowe. Pinacl is working with the council to see if it is possible to “separate the aerial from the sensor, [but this has some] practical challenges [given that] a lot of the manholes are right in the middle of the carriageway”.

Pinacl is consulting with the rest of the market on this and Lowe says “we’re looking at engaging with universities to see what they’ve got. We’ve always promoted our Newport [LoRaWAN] network as a living lab and if universities or entrepreneurs want to [use it to] test sensors or innovative products and solutions in a [live] city environment, we’re open to supporting that.”

Lowe adds that Pinacl has also discussed deploying parking sensors in areas “where they don’t want people parking”. Newport is currently using infrared road temperature sensors to help decide in winter whether the council should grit the roads, instead of “just relying on meteorological forecasting”. However, these are also proving their worth in summer, given the way that they can be used to detect areas of road that are so hot that the Tarmac may become sticky and tacky.

Lowe explains that a similar approach is being taken in York, where the council is also evaluating intelligent lighting and is interested in environmental monitoring, as flooding is a significant concern. “They may also want us to measure rainfall, which we’re already doing around Aberdeen.”

He adds that Pinacl is working in partnership with damp and moisture specialists Cornerstone and has launched an IoT sensor-based solution called Tempus to measure properties’ atmospheric conditions and which can help prevent damp and mould by automatically triggering alarms when thresholds are exceeded. The company is already working with “a number of housing associations” and is offering it to both public and private social housing landlords. The solution can also be used to determine if a property is vacant or being occupied in an unauthorised manner – “We’re also looking at things like fuel poverty alerting,” Lowe says. Pinacl also offers a social care solution that runs over a Wi-Fi network, which will monitor a person receiving social care’s movements (with their consent) to build up a baseline of their daily routine and then enable deviations from it to be acted upon and investigated, as well as informing relatives.

Lowe says Pinacl has found the air quality sensors that are available for use with LoRaWAN have so far proven to be unreliable. “We’ve deployed a number of these sensors into Newport that claim to be able to measure the air quality index (AQI), and they’ve been well short of what we’d expect as a standard. We’ve moved on now and, in terms of air quality, we’re evaluating a sensor that uses Wi-Fi [for] backhaul. We have a pilot one deployed in South Wales next to a DEFRA monitoring station, so we have a very good baseline to test that sensor against.”

Swings and roundabouts
Pinacl’s Lowe says one issue that can occur when working with councils on IoT projects is that of “diluted and drawn-out decision-making”, as conversation may need to include the whole organisation, in which case “getting access to promote and demonstrate these solutions to the right people can be a challenge”. This stems from the fact that “you might need two or three departments to combine their efficiency gains and cost savings to justify some [IoT] solutions”.

On the flipside, he notes that from a practical level, councils often have assets onto which IoT gateways can be installed, which is handy as good vantage points are required for such locations when deploying an outdoor IoT network across a city. Lowe adds that in Newport, Pinacl has “been able to cover pretty much most of the city centre with four gateways” and is evaluating the use of solar power to improve sustainability and allow gateways to be deployed in locations where access to mains power would be an issue.

It’s about the bottom line…
We’ve covered city-wide IoT deployments, but let’s now shift to in-building ones. Richard Lansdowne, senior director of the wireless and sensing business unit at Semtech (the company that owns the intellectual property around LoRa’s physical layer), says one of the “perfect applications” for LoRa (a low-power wide-area radio technology) is in a managed services building where the occupant (eg, a bank) doesn’t want anyone else connected to their corporate networks. If the managed services company wants to measure environmental factors such as temperature, along with “the coffee machine and toilet service buttons”, it can do so by connecting the sensors to its own LoRa network outside the building.

Lansdowne adds that in a lot of cases, facilities management companies use sensors to count the number of times toilet doors are opened and closed and use this information to fine-tune when the
toilets are cleaned. “We have seen them save 30 per cent of cleaning costs by not cleaning toilets that
aren’t used and going more often to toilets that are used. Depending on the day of the week or what groups are in the building, that usage pattern may be quite variable.”

One company that has focused on smart building monitoring IoT solutions is Comms 365 – as its head of IoT and products Nick Sacke explains: “For IoT to go beyond the theoretical or conceptual, we had to look at industries and customers with specific challenges. We [spoke with a number of] facilities managers, their companies and building owners who said that they were entranced by the idea of IoT but couldn’t put their hands on something tangible in terms of how to deploy and get it to work.

“So we tried to tease out a number of use-cases from these facilities managers which could immediately [improve their] operational bottom line. Many of the conversations ran along similar lines – the managers wanted to better monitor energy consumption, the performance of their air-conditioning systems (through monitoring temperature and CO2 levels), the movement of people through their buildings and parking space occupancy (interfaced with a booking system so that they could be alerted if key spaces became occupied by unauthorised vehicles).”

Sacke adds that it is about more than just cost savings, given the link between high CO2 levels and poor productivity. “Over time a complete operational model took shape of how they managed their building, and by looking at the various challenges and applying IoT selectively to some of these we were able to help them build a composite picture of how their buildings were operating and they could then [use this to decide whether to upgrade the infrastructure of their facilities].

“In all matters IoT, technology can be a great distractor – it’s almost looking for the technology and then looking at the problem. So [we] talk to people about the challenges of their day-to-day operations and then apply the technology selectively. [We typically do] a phase one trial to see whether the data that’s being harvested is the right sort of data and how to make use of that data. [There’s] normally a period of consultation to look at challenges and problems and then to identify the most [promising applications].”

He adds that one stumbling block with technology adoption can be the absence of a clear plan for what to do after a trial deployment, “so in the cases where we were successful, we were able to get facilities managers to agree what would happen after the initial trial period”.

Blood, sweat and tears
It’s important not to underestimate the challenges involved when it comes to entering the IoT market as a systems integrator or installer, as Pinacl’s Lowe explains. “There’s a huge amount of people coming into the market [and] people are very quick to portray themselves as experts when they’ve [possibly] never [deployed an IoT system],” says Lowe. “We’ve been through a lot of pain over [our] two and a half years [in IoT], it’s not been a glorious journey. There’s been a lot of learning and man hours and blood, sweat and tears that have got us to where we are today. We share that learning with customers or prospective clients [as] it helps people believe [in us]. People are coming [into the IoT sector] thinking they know it, and then they will get burnt, that’s the problem.”

One other issue for the nascent IoT industry is the high number of components – the ‘IoT stack’ – that together make up an end-to-end IoT solution and the complexity this creates. Sacke’s list includes the devices/sensors, the gateway they send messages to – which in turn sends its messages onto a network server, which may sit in the cloud – the analytics software required to turn the gathered data into useful insights and allow it be visualised for easy consumption, and “different stakeholders within an organisation might require different views or versions of their data”. In addition “the data might also need to be exported into a third-party system, [such as] a control mechanism” to allow the system to do things like adjusting the operation of an air-conditioning unit that’s being monitored for vibration and temperature, to ensure that it doesn’t burn out.

What’s the answer? One ray of hope in this regard is the recent news that Semtech and Murata have developed a new modem based on the former’s LoRa devices and the LoRaWAN protocol, which also uses Semtech’s Cloud Device & Application Services (which were announced back in March), along with LoRa Cloud Join Server. The latter simplifies the provisioning of devices across LoRaWAN networks.

Lansdowne says the modem and these services have been developed to reduce the barriers to mass adoption of IoT, by removing the need for every device manufacturer to “go through the pain of developing the stack or testing their stack, qualifying their stack [and] generating the device management features. While many people will want to do that themselves, for everyone who doesn’t they can just simply get this from Semtech and there will be other providers that will do similar [kinds of things]. You can buy an Android handset for £50, or one for £1,000, they both connect [in the same way to a mobile network], but [are differentiated in other ways]. There’s no reason why LoRaWAN shouldn’t be the same – no-one needs to differentiate on the connectivity layer because that should just be a given.”

Taking IoT projects from concept to completion is an intricate business, with many potential pitfalls. But with the steady hard-won accumulation of experience and practical expertise among systems integrators and those driving the development of the underlying silicon working to make the technology more accessible, there has never been a better time to see if you could benefit from the Internet of Things.

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