The Internet of Things (IoT) has introduced large-scale networking and digitization to commercial buildings and opens a whole new range of solutions and services for construction and building management executives that are too compelling to ignore. This innovation will yield true smart buildings that are efficient, save energy, optimize facility management, enhance safety and security, generate business intelligence and improve occupants’ experience. What makes these buildings smart is networked IoT sensors deployed across the entire environment, sourcing a wealth of data that can be harnessed for making building-wide decisions in real time.

The Case for Networked Lighting
Connected sensors can be installed in a building as a separate autonomous system or incorporated into the existing utility infrastructure. Choosing between these two approaches depends on factors such as the level of digitization, budget and the scope of required automation. From a purely economic perspective, incorporating the sensors into an existing building lighting system has the natural advantages of using a single infrastructure and avoiding redundancy.

An obvious way to leverage a building’s IoT network backbone is through the lighting system, where sensors are essentially integrated into lighting fixtures. There are clear benefits to using the lighting system in this manner:
  • LED lighting, which is becoming the dominant lighting technology, is digital-friendly and equipped to support sensors.
  • Lighting fixtures are already widely distributed throughout a building.
  • Lighting systems are unobtrusive.
Industry evidence abounds suggesting that lighting infrastructure is a viable vehicle for making buildings smarter. Recently, Cisco has led the “digital ceiling initiative” to drive a collaborative framework for smart building technology. The initiative includes recognizable names in the building and lighting arena, including Philips Lighting, Johnson Controls, Cree and Eaton. The collaboration is expected to yield better user experiences through the convergence of IT networks and building technologies, such as lighting, heating, cooling, security, motion detection, and other sensors and actuators.

Cost and Scalability Considerations
The intelligence of the building and the efficacy of the digital ceiling are determined by the data provided by the sensors. The more useful and actionable information the sensors provide, the more intelligent the building will be.

Incorporating IoT sensors into lighting fixtures (the “nodes” of the digital ceiling) introduces a few challenges. First, sensors typically require data streaming to the server or the cloud for further analysis, which burdens the network with increased traffic and delays response times.

Second, because a building’s lighting infrastructure is designed for longer-term installation, smart sensors incorporated into the lighting system should be future proof (i.e., flexible and scalable to adapt to future enhancements and modifications). Third, given that lighting fixtures are ubiquitous across the building space, smart sensors must be low cost to afford wide deployment.

Image-Based IoT Sensors for Smart Buildings

Recent developments in sensing technologies address these challenges in an effective way. A new breed of smart sensors includes miniature image-based devices, running embedded analytics on a low-cost processor that can be incorporated into the lighting fixtures of a digital ceiling. Using imaging, the sensor captures detailed information about objects’ and occupants’ activity. Unlike most image-based solutions, all analytics are performed within the device, so only the processed data (actionable information) is passed to the network. This way, communication traffic is minimized and occupants’ privacy is preserved.

Low-cost, low-power embedded microprocessors keep costs down for contractors considering widespread sensor deployment.

Smart sensors support a wide range of applications.
  • Space utilization management. Space utilization information enables commercial facility managers to better optimize the facility’s layout for current and future needs. New smart sensors can track occupants’ locations and movements, providing valuable real-time insight into how spaces are being used (or underused).
  • Energy savings. By counting the number of occupants in a given space, demand-controlled ventilation can be optimized to save energy and comply with industry standards and regulations. Incorporating the smart sensor into lighting fixtures yields a variety of unique insights on energy management and lighting usage. Data provided by the sensor can help determine how to optimally light a space while taking advantage of natural light, thereby saving energy.
  • Safety and security. The smart sensor can provide information for improving safety by detecting falling accidents and assisting in emergency building evacuations. Security access control can be enhanced by detecting events such as tailgating and loitering in pre-defined zones.          
In view of the ongoing transformation of the building automation industry, spearheaded by the IoT revolution, the lighting system is considered to be the most suitable infrastructure to carry on the smart building mission. A digital ceiling that uses smart sensors incorporated into lighting fixtures creates an affordable and scalable option for system providers, building owners and facility managers.

Itamar Roth is chief business officer of PointGrab. For more information, email