Navigant Research Blog

Building Sensors Reach Vanishing Point

— September 9, 2014

Sensors play a critical role in building operations, from safety and security to optimizing building system performance.  Building energy management systems, lighting controls, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are slowly incorporating more sensors as their prices fall and their values rise.  Navigant Research’s report Advanced Sensors in Smart Buildings delves into the future of the market for sensors that have built-in processors, networking capability, and the capability to sense more than one phenomenon at a time.  Yet, as design elements in rooms and ceilings, most sensors, like the traditional thermostat, are unappealing appendages with little aesthetic value.  The good news is that the ugly boxes and knobs are shrinking and may disappear from view altogether.

Redwood Systems (acquired last year by networking company Commscope) recently released its third-generation light and motion sensor.  Redwood’s approach is to capture fine-grain occupancy and light levels to deliver lighting precisely to those in offices who need it, when they want it, even with shifting levels of sunlight.  Its lighting solution and accompanying open application programming interface (API) were deployed at the San Francisco headquarters of the software management firm GitHub, then promptly customized to enable the employees to tailor light levels as they see fit.  Redwood’s sensor looks like a small lump on the ceiling and can even be embedded in LED lighting systems themselves.

Sense of Control

The next generation of sensors may not look like anything.  New materials and manufacturing techniques will hide sensors from view, either embedding them in equipment or as objects to paste on surfaces as needed.  Imagine living in a house with smooth walls and ceilings.  No light switches or thermostats in view, other than as decorative objects.  Norwegian company Thinfilm has developed a printable temperature sensor that can function as both a temperature sensor and display for a myriad of applications.  Funded by PARC, Xerox’s research arm, Thinfilm has focused its efforts on thin labels for consumer products (like produce) that have tight temperature and lifetime tolerances.  Thinfilm has also developed advanced ID cards for people that can display names and access levels to different locations.  With data storage and near-field communications capability, Thinfilm’s products have the potential to leap from smart temperature labels to flat room temperature sensors with built-in displays and network communication.

The French company ISORG is also developing a technology using printed sensors.  Its flat light sensors are designed not for occupancy or light level applications, but for applications where light level variances can be used to control equipment, like consumer devices.  And it just received $8.7 million in financing,  bringing new attention to the printed sensor space.  This technology may jump into equipment themselves, like HVAC fans and pumps, where minuscule sensors can enable more granular control and system optimization.


Standards Announcements Expand Wireless Device Market

— May 31, 2012

As the building automation industry has drifted away from proprietary communication protocols toward open ones, it has also faced the new challenge of integrating wireless devices as wireless technology and products evolve and mature to satisfy tomorrow’s energy management solutions and globalizing markets.  A number of standards – particularly ZigBee and EnOcean – have staked out spots in the growing wireless automation device market and are aiming to further solidify their roles as the market matures.

Two major recent announcements provide insight into where that future lies.  The first was the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC)’s announcement that it had ratified a new standard, ISO/IEC 14543-3-10, for low-powered wireless devices, particularly energy-harvesting, battery-free wireless devices.  This was tantamount to an IEC endorsement of the EnOcean Alliance’s entire battery-free product ecosystem, and will drive both increased development of EnOcean-based products as well as other energy-harvesting wireless devices.  Previously, no such standard existed for low- and no-power consumption wireless devices, so EnOcean’s products lacked such an industry stamp-of-approval until today.  (If you’re not familiar with EnOcean, their battery-free technology harvests energy from the surrounding environment, such as the energy generated by flipping a switch or from incident light, to transmit a signal over short distances.)

I caught up with Graham Martin, Chairman of the EnOcean Alliance, at the Light+Building Show in Frankfurt a few weeks ago, where vendors such as Siemens, Honeywell, and many others were displaying EnOcean products.  He reported that sales of EnOcean products have been growing about 50% per year, which he hopes will create economies of scale for EnOcean products.  Although EnOcean has made considerable inroads in the Central European wireless automation device market, it is setting its sights on the U.S.  market over the next decade, where it will come face-to-face with ZigBee and its growing ecosystem of devices for smart buildings and the smart grid.

ZigBee, for its part, has been all but silent on this front.  It recently announced the launch of a new standard, ZigBee Light Link, an open standard that provides wireless control for wireless LED controls.  In the fiercely competitive LED lighting environment, where new lawsuits over alleged patent infringements seem to be surfacing on an almost daily basis, the new ZigBee standard provides a vendor-agnostic control solution that facilitates interoperability across different vendors’ technologies.

Today, wireless controls still represent a small niche within the $75 billion automation market, as we discuss in our report, “Commercial Building Automation Systems”.  However, these major announcements from EnOcean and ZigBee represent a big leap forward for wireless and devices and will undoubtedly increase confidence among building systems integrators and facility managers in the viability and maturation of wireless device technology.


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