Building automation – A business opportunity not to miss out on

 

  • Growing market for home automation technology solutions, now worth £160 million annually
  • Hager urges electrical sector and the building industry to capitalise on consumer demand for better connected homes

 A leading supplier of solutions and services for electrical installations, Hager believes the electrical sector is missing out on potential business opportunities on the back of growing demand for home automation.

It also encourages the building industry to ensure greater volumes of automation technologies are included in future new builds to meet growing consumer expectations for more connectivity and control around the home.

Research undertaken by AMA Research says the UK home automation market is worth £160 million annually.  It has experienced significant growth since 2010 as home owners seek out system solutions that include access, security, climate, lighting and shading controls, home entertainment and communication systems. Technological advances driving the home automation market include the progress of wireless controls and LED lighting, but also include the widening market for connected audio and visual content via home networks, and the adoption of “app” driven control interfaces, according to AMA’s report.

Matt Price, Technical Support Engineer for Hager, says: “The growth in demand for home automation technologies presents a great opportunity for the electrical industry. Consumer demand for solutions that provide greater connectivity and energy saving capability within the home, as well as remote control of household functions, will only continue to intensify. More widely used buildings such as colleges can also benefit from smart solutions. Therefore, the electrical contracting industry should be arming itself with technical knowledge and installation expertise to capitalise on such  potential domestic and commercial projects.

“There is currently a low awareness of home automation technologies across the sector and those that focus on this area of business opportunity could now reap significant benefit in the future.”

Matt Price also encourages the construction sector to embrace the adoption of home automation technologies in new build developments, saying: “There is a real opportunity for the building industry if it starts to offer more automation solutions for customers.  For example, home automation technologies could be trialled within a set number of homes across a large-scale development.  This would not only offer a point of differentiation from a sales perspective, it would also satisfy an increasing requirement from home owners and tap into their willingness to pay a premium for them. Indeed, I predict that house buyers of the future will insist that automation products and systems are included when deciding to purchase a new home as technology-driven connectivity, currently seen with smart phones, extends to other areas of daily life.”

Hager’s well established home automation product portfolio is also backed by a technical support team to help provide expert guidance to specifiers and contractors looking to build a home automation offering.  The company’s Tebis KNX automation solution delivers a smart home management system for lighting, electrical, security, heating, air conditioning and entertainment. With flexible programming capability, it can be used to support the lifestyle requirements of the owners, and introduce efficiencies that over time can result in significant energy and financial savings. Installation is simplified via a single bus cable, ensuring projects can be completed quickly.

A free one day course on Tebis KNX is also available from Hager. Participants can learn about how they can design, install and commission bus systems for commercial and domestic installations with an opportunity to gain hands on experience by programming the system as well.

Matt Price concludes: “The increase in ‘intelligent’ homes is being driven by customer demand.  All stakeholders, from current electricians, the building industry, electrical wholesalers, specifiers and, even those training the contractors of the future, have a part to play if the home automation opportunity is to be fully realised. Once established, such experience can be extended to more commercially-based project opportunities such as education projects where smart solutions can help optimise the efficiency of a building’s performance.  Current technology development, allied to home owner expectation, means those across the sector who don’t invest the time and resource now to fully arm themselves with home automation product expertise and a commercial offering, could be left behind.”

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The vision of seeing buildings

Figure 2 above: Ten image recognition functions provided by the Omron HVC module

Vision functionality from consumer electronics could revolutionise building automation and pave the way for full integration with security systems. Gabriele Fulco, European Product Marketing Manager,  Omron Electronic Components

Vision has become an accepted part of the user interface of consumer electronics. A phone can recognise its owner and respond accordingly. Games consoles and televisions respond to our gestures, dispensing with the need for a remote control and simplifying access to their increasingly advanced functions.

In this context, it seems strange that vision based functionality have as yet not spread into building automation systems. Premises commonly have CCTV systems, but these simply transmit an image. The interpretation of that image is left to a human operator, who is normally only responsible for security. The passive infra-red detector (PIR) in a room will switch the lights off in a room while a meeting is in progress, even though the security camera in the same space can clearly see the occupants.

Building automation potential

Building automation systems are a much more demanding application than mobile phones and games consoles, but innovative vendors are developing technology originally created for mobile phones to deliver solutions suitable for the professional environment.

Using such technology, building automation systems can interpret the image collected by a camera. They can tell the difference between a human and a cat. They can see and respond to gestures and gauge their mood, their age and their gender. They can also recognise an individual. Using these sensors, security systems and building automation systems could eventually be integrated together using one set of vision modules. The data they collect can be responded to automatically, saved or collated centrally, and passed to an operator only when necessary.

Potentially, an office can recognise an individual when he or she arrives, and set up heating and lighting just the way they like it. The next generation of lighting systems can also respond to gestures adjusting lighting, air conditioning or heating.

omron3
Figure 3: The Omron HVC module

The Omron HVC module is the first vision module specifically aimed at applications like building automation, available in low volumes and readily integrated by any designer without any need to understand the complex algorithms needed to recognise gestures, faces and expressions or the optical design. The module is a fully integrated, plug-in solution. The developer can just look at the outputs and configure the system to make appropriate decisions depending on their status.

Security integration

Since modules such as HVC can reliably detect the presence, location and identity of occupants in a room, they will ultimately allow full integration between access control and building services systems, enhancing the functionality of both. It can identify individuals and permit or deny access. Security can be alerted if unauthorised individuals are present in specific areas, and time-stamped photographs stored. The system can ensure that an authorised ‘host’ is present in a meeting room, and count the number of visitors to public areas. Without doubt, the introduction of vision systems will add a new dimension to commercial premises management.

Core software

Modules like the HVC rely on consumer technology. HVC builds on the Omron OKAO Vision software, a proven set of image recognition algorithms used in over 500 million digital cameras, mobile phones and surveillance robots around the world. It integrates ten image key image sensing functions, a camera and an external interface. Developers can detect a human face, hand or body, and implement face recognition, gender detection, age estimation, mood estimation, facial pose estimation, gaze estimation, and blink estimation. In each case the module returns a value together with a degree of certainty, allowing the programmer to configure the response appropriately for each individual application.

Key features of the module include speed and consistency of response, and the distance over which it can take readings. For example, HVC can capture, detect and recognise a face over a distance of over 1m in 0.63s and will provide a confidence level with its reading. Blink and gaze estimation takes under 0.5s. The module can evaluate the subject’s mood based on one of five expressions. It can also detect a human body around 3m away and a hand at a distance of typically 1.5 m. HVC implements the OKAO software on a hardware platform complete with camera, processor and data interface optimised specifically in terms of its digital and optical design for this application.

Figure 1: Response times on different image recognition functions
Figure 1: Response times on different image recognition functions

The algorithms required to implement these functions are complex and processor intensive, but they are handled entirely within the module. The memory and processor intensive computations involved make no demand at all on the host system. The module also frees the system developer from having to devote time to building and testing algorithms, a complex and time intensive task.

Specialist buildings

The potential for vision in building control and security is huge – particularly in specialist buildings.   In schools, modules can distinguish between a child or student and an adult, and a member of staff and a stranger, providing appropriate alerts as required. In healthcare, modules can recognise individual patients and even detect their mood to greatly enhance patient management. On industrial sites, the system can identify when visitors stray off the safe walkways and trigger warning messages.

Face recognition and gesture control have been features of high volume consumer electronics for some time. Their potential to revolutionise building automation systems is only just beginning to be recognised.

This article appeared as the cover story for the June 2015 issue of Building & Facilities Management.

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