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The Internet of Things – how today’s buildings are gathering the data that will shape tomorrow’s

The old joke about the average smartphone having more processing power than the Apollo spacecraft’s onboard computer is still striking, but the comparison is already out of date.

Today’s mobiles have long since passed that threshold and tiny computers are now being added to millions of devices beyond phones.

Together these objects form the ‘Internet of Things’.

If the conventional internet is a global network of computers, the Internet of Things is the legion of physical objects – ranging from lifts to airliners – which are connected via the internet and either able to capture data about themselves and their environment, or able to act on data they receive.

Perhaps the best known of such devices are smart thermostats like those made by Nest Labs – a company bought this year by Google for a cool £2bn. The world’s most famous internet company clearly has no doubts about the future potential of the Internet of Things.

Construction an early beneficiary

Modern buildings and infrastructure bristle with such devices, measuring everything from energy usage to occupancy.

The vast amount of data they collect is already having a transformative impact on the way future projects are designed, built and managed.

Early adopters include commercial property occupiers who have raised energy efficiency by using the technology to automate the control of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and lighting.

“The key with this sea of data – all of which is collected and shared in real-time – is to avoid being overwhelmed by it”

Such systems can respond dynamically to occupancy and local conditions, such as the size of the room.

Offices that operate a ‘hot desk’ policy can accurately map desk usage by tracking traffic to each unique IP address – allowing companies to optimise office space and model office moves with greater accuracy.

Security and safety are also important considerations; smart security passes can help companies to manage staff access better and – in the event of fire – to use ventilation systems to disperse smoke into unoccupied areas.

Advances in the technology will soon allow even better monitoring of the health, status and performance of built assets.

A London-based start-up called Asset Mapping is developing a system that takes data feeds from everything from CCTV cameras to HVAC sensors and integrates them into a central control interface.

Data, data everywhere

The key with this sea of data – all of which is collected and shared in real-time – is to avoid being overwhelmed by it. This is where human expertise is still essential in setting up such systems correctly.

“Just as the internet is a more powerful resource now than when it was limited to a handful of websites, so too for the Internet of Things”

Human analytical capability and expertise is needed to ensure data can be distilled into actionable information, and expert knowledge and experience are required to interpret and make better decisions with it.

Used correctly, the insights offered by these devices and the avalanche of information they gather will help make future building designs safer and more energy efficient – and optimise the way existing assets are used.

The future

Just as the internet is a more powerful resource now than when it was limited to a handful of websites, so too for the Internet of Things. The more ‘things’ connected to it, the greater the benefits of being connected become.

In the longer term the technology’s potential applications verge on the science fiction – a leak from a burst water pipe would be detected by sensors in the pipe’s lining and communicated to a control centre, which would automatically locate nearby engineers and electronically auction the job.

The day when the engineer travels to the repair location in a driverless car may still be a long way off, but the automation technology of the Internet of Things is already here – and shaping the buildings of tomorrow.

Chris Gage is a director at Turner & Townsend

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