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The Internet of Things (IoT) is a paradigm shift that promises to forever change the internet as we know it. However, the Building Internet of Things (BIoT), the AEC industry’s spinoff of IoT, likely holds as much or more potential for the design and construction of intelligent structures.

In the strictest sense, BIoT is about using smart sensors and devices to bring all aspects of an asset’s technical performance into one common platform as a way to automatically optimize system operations — whether that’s a highway system or an office building or an industrial plant. A “smart” system enables data to flow across an enterprise infrastructure, spanning the devices where valuable data is gathered from different building components and people, to the back-end systems where that data can be translated into insights and action. We’re already seeing how smart buildings help improve operational efficiencies and minimize energy consumption, and can positively impact the human experience in terms of convenience and safety.

Now consider how BIoT concepts applied during design and construction of infrastructure and other assets could conserve valuable operational resources and optimize financial investments while delivering more cognitive, smarter, more versatile, and sustainable structures. Many of the BIoT technologies are already available.

Enriching RFID

One of the easiest ways to embed BIoT into the design and construction process is to rely more heavily on radio-frequency identification (RFID) for tracking material, equipment, and personnel. With RFID, project teams make sure schedules are accurate based on material orders. Some contractors are starting to experiment with RFID tags as construction worker ID badges that are tagged to a secure cloud network. Through the cloud, a project manager or construction manager is able to see in real-time the number of people working on a project in what areas.

The embedded intelligent tags help large retailers manage their production lines and follow supply chains more efficiently. Further, RFID can be used to automatically track shipping containers and other supply systems.

But RFID is just the low-hanging fruit of BIoT. The implementation of building information modeling (BIM), smart sensors, and devices into the construction and project management process offers far greater value. As Lachmi Khemlani, an architect who specializes in intelligent building modeling and the founder and editor of AECbytes, noted in a recent article, “With regard to BIM authoring tools, there would certainly be additional ‘placeholders’ to capture the additional ‘smart’ properties of a building element. Presumably, the BIM application also has to take into account how these smart elements will interact with each other, simulating them digitally as they would behave in real life.” (www.aecbytes.com/feature/2014/InternetofThings.html).

RFID-tagged objects that are synced to a cloud-based network are able to talk with each other, so BIM systems will also need to be able to simulate these relationships digitally.

Khemlani illustrated this concept with the following example: “If a smart beam and a smart column ‘know’ that they have to fit together in a certain way when they are being constructed, the design tool has to take that into account and make sure they come together in the same way in a BIM model.”

Similarly, some industry pioneers are combining BIM and smart sensors to improve jobsite safety. In the published paper, Workforce Location Tracking to Model, Visualize, and Analyze Workspace Requirements in Building Information Models for Construction Safety Planning (www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0926580515002022), the authors proposed an approach to proactively improve construction safety through a combination of lean practices, BIM-enabled automated workspace visualization, remote sensing, and workspace modeling technologies. In the case study tested on a real construction project, high-precision GPS data loggers were attached to the hardhat personal protective equipment (PPE) of a work crew constructing cast-in-place concrete columns.

The team further developed algorithms to extract activity-specific workspace parameters from the recorded workforce location tracking data. Using an unmanned aerial vehicle to create as-built information of the site’s working conditions and visualized within BIM, construction managers, foremen, and site supervisors are able to evaluate potential workspace conflicts among the other competing work crews or lifting equipment.

IoT and project management

Too often, project managers spend untold hours gathering, sorting, entering, and coordinating project data to track and report project progress. The application of BIoT sensors and devices on people, equipment, and materials interconnects the entire project team. The subsequent real-time data — data that is particularly valuable when issues arise — is directly fed to any project management solution, improving the decision-making process. The sensor data can also be connected to create an executive-level graphic for clients or management.

BIoT improves the proficiency and viability of correspondence and coordinated effort much better than conventional methods because data and information can be shared among colleagues regardless of their location. As well, it facilitates the analysis of Big Data.

Big Data for project managers could mean the sharing of cross-functional management experience between engineers, scientists, business analysts, maintenance staff, etc. It might also support a data-driven assessment of available resources — people, material, and finances — to ensure maximum efficiency. In essence, BIoT provides the data that will facilitate a big-picture vision of a project and the ability to adapt team skills to work within organizational scopes.

With BIoT, project management tools will be more interconnected to show the overall impact in budget and schedule. For example, a change order during the construction phase can be input into the system where the system will correctly calculate the necessary lead time as well as schedule and budget impacts. Accessibility to detailed and real-time information allows agile project teams to find alternatives or to proceed with approved changes.

BIoT and infrastructure

From roads, bridges, and pipelines to communication networks, civil infrastructure is a vital element of every community. BIoT provides an amazing platform for all engineers to measure structural humidity, moisture, vibration analysis, etc. and to achieve an exact conclusion without individual judgment. BIoT allows structural engineers to perform monitoring-based commissioning for preventative analysis or to avoid and address potential safety issues before they occur

As Figure 1 shows, all information regarding safety, durability, serviceability, and energy efficiency of assets could be comprehensively gathered and intelligently manipulated and shared in a uniform format on an IoT platform to create extraordinary sense for decision-making people.

According to the article “Civil Infrastructures Connected Internet of Things” from the Current Advances in Civil Engineering journal (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259368593_Civil_Infrastructures_Connected_Internet_of_Things), a social researcher in Hong Kong took advantage of the statistical records on traffic flow from several downtown cable-stayed bridges to study the level of local economic activity. The authors believe that the subsequent economic index created from this information will provide a comprehensive and objective stock index that accurately reflects local economic trends.

Crystal Building, located on London’s Royal Docks, incorporates more than 3,500 data monitoring points and a state-of-the-art building management system that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Photo: Siemens

As well, the direct communication between BIoT sensors and smart objects is expected to significantly help transportation agencies better manage traffic. A densely distributed sensory network in transportation systems could automatically gather data about vehicle speeds, weight-in movements, and positions. That information could then be used to improve traffic flow, minimize incidents, and effectively save lives.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 report card gives American infrastructure an overall GPA of D+. The report further recommends an investment of $3.6 trillion by the end of 2020 to address the problem. However, investment is only part of the challenge. Along with investment and committed leadership, we must take advantage of smart technologies such as BIoT sensors and devices. Imagine how a densely embedded sensory network might detect early infrastructure deterioration. Together with a properly designed closed-loop intelligent system, those responsible for operations and maintenance will be able to react appropriately to improve service or reduce environmental impact or both.

Realizing BIoT’s potential

Building a sustainable asset is relatively straightforward; maintaining such an energy efficient asset can only be possible with modern IoT. What has begun with BIoT-based building automation systems is fast becoming an important tool for professionals in the design and construction of tomorrow’s facilities.

For example, Crystal Building, located on London’s Royal Docks, is considered one of the most sustainable buildings in the world. In fact, by incorporating innovation and technology solutions in the areas of energy efficiency and sustainability, this building set a new industry benchmark. This all-electric building uses solar power and a ground source heat pump to generate its own energy. It incorporates rainwater harvesting, black water treatment, solar heating, and automated building management systems — and it relies on IoT systems to manage everything.

The structure incorporates more than 3,500 data monitoring points and a state-of-the-art building management system that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Its lighting system automatically adjusts for brightness and color according to the time of day and the automated ventilation system is sequenced to indoor and outdoor conditions.

Smart node technology allows the building to store electricity in a battery during off peak hours for use during the peak hours. The building can even measure every kilowatt of electricity it uses and compare its performance against other buildings across the world. The owners state that the building consumes 46 percent less energy and emits 70 percent less CO2 than comparable office buildings. The building is the first to receive both a LEED Platinum designation from the U.S. Green Building Council and certification through the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method.

More to the point, the Crystal Building was built with advances that are all accessible today. Along these lines, envision what we can accomplish for sustainability when we start to incorporate cognition into these buildings. The potential outcomes are endless. Structures are turning out to be substantially more than concrete, steel, wood, and glass. They are smart, versatile environments that are a piece of a more sustainable future.

While BIoT concepts are still fragmented and only a few solutions are commercially available now, the approach has the potential to play a big role in all major segments of the built environment. The underlying core capabilities — sensing, connectivity, and computing — are essential for the BIoT system.


Sandeep Kulkarni, LEED AP, is an MEP project engineer at NV5 (www.nv5.com), a multidiscipline firm providing planning, design, permitting, inspection and field supervision, and management oversight of transportation systems, water/wastewater systems, sports facilities, military base renovations, utilities expansion, renewable energy, and education and health care facilities.

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