Photo: New technologies applied to buildings will redefine the way people interact with infrastructure. Credit: Pixabay.

By Danielle Maxwell

Imagine that, before entering a shopping center, you have to stop and read a screen located at the entrance. This will indicate that the space at that moment is at its maximum capacity and will invite you to wait a few minutes until there is capacity available. Of course, it will also remind you to keep a safe distance from other visitors. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this situation is closer to reality than we think. To promote prevention against the Coronavirus, technologies are being developed that will redefine the way we relate to infrastructures.

According to IoT and Big Data Analytics for Smart Buildings: A Survey, people spend 80% of their lives inside buildings. Therefore, it is crucial to turn these spaces into places adapted to the needs arising from the Coronavirus. In this scenario, solutions related to digital building are presented as indispensable elements, such as building management systems (BMS) and new technologies based on the Internet of Things (IoT).

As the Italian company Tecnovox explains, these technologies are characterised by being user-centered, boosting the economic performance of infrastructures, promoting their sustainability and increasing the level of knowledge about how a building works and what is the behaviour of visitors.

Although they were used before the pandemic, they now have changed their approach. As the key account manager in Opinno, Senén Bernárdez, explains, they previously focused on optimising infrastructure, the use of space and saving water and energy. Now, they are focused on maintaining the health and safety of their occupants and managing the threat of the virus.

Moreover, sales of smart building technologies are estimated to grow by 4.3% in 2020 to reach 685.7 million dollars due to increased demand from homeowners to create safe spaces. For example, companies are already launching their own projects to adapt to this new reality. This is the case of GMP Horizon, a real estate company which has launched a call for proposals to work with partners to develop safe and healthy buildings. 

Solutions for Buildings in the “New Normal”

Offices, shopping centres and hospitals will be the main infrastructures that will have to change their operation. This is what Bernárdez says, adding that “spaces such as shopping centres will have to redefine their value proposal and, instead of being massive places, they will be experiential places”. The idea is to convert traditional spaces into intelligent spaces capable of knowing their level of occupation in real time and offering alternatives to avoid tactile contact with objects.

Non-contact temperature check: An example of such technology is Janus, a stand created by IntraEdge and Pyramid Computer in collaboration with Intel capable of checking the temperature up to 1,500 people per hour. To do this, the user must scan a QR code on his phone and stand in front of the Janus camera. Between one and five seconds later, he will receive a message to find out if he has been granted access.

Photo: IoT sensors are capable of measuring aspects such as occupancy rate and air quality in enclosed spaces. Credit: Pixabay.

● IoT sensors: These devices are installed on objects to collect data about an environment and transfer information without requiring human interaction:

  • Occupancy sensors: These systems make it easier to monitor people's behaviour. For example, VergeSense, a start-up based in San Francisco (USA), created an artificial intelligence-powered sensor that records the number of visitors in real time to measure the distance between people and notify when facilities need to be cleaned.
  • Air quality sensors: The virus has highlighted the importance of knowing the air quality in closed spaces and solutions such as ALTA wireless Air Quality work in this line. Specifically, this technology uses a laser that measures the number of air particles and transmits the data to its cloud-based control system. 

● Biometric access control: Solutions to replace fingerprint scanners, keyboards and other surfaces are in high demand. This is the case of Touchless Biometric Systems (TBS), which has developed a 2D eye system and facial technology to allow people to access a space without having to establish any contact with the premises.

Self-cleaning materials: There are materials capable of automatically removing any residue or bacteria from their surfaces. This is the case of the covers of the company NanoTouch Materials, which integrate nanocrystals to oxidize the organic material and continuously clean the surfaces that are frequently touched.

The Challenges of Connected Infrastructure

Although the digital building field draws a scenario of self-sufficient buildings capable of covering the needs caused by the COVID-19, there is still a way to go. As Bernárdez points out, the challenges for innovation in the sector are still great: “We must take into account the characteristics of the real estate world, a very traditional sector”. In order to put all these solutions into practice, we must not lose sight of a series of challenges:

  • Costs: “The ability to incorporate intelligent technologies into infrastructure is complicated, since it depends on the fixed costs of a real estate company,” says Bernárdez. BMS systems are complex, expensive and require specialized implementation and maintenance. For example, in the United States, these systems can cost between 2.50 dollars and 7 dollars per square meter (about 2 to 6 euros), which is equivalent to at least 250 000 dollars (about 211 000 euros) for a building of about 9 300 square meters.
  • Data protection: One of the biggest challenges in collecting biological data is to store this information in compliance with data protection policies. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) explains that the absence of clear legislation could lead to a number of complications such as a lack of transparency on the use of such data and the difficulty of obtaining full consent when accessing to personal information.

Photo: It is crucial to strengthen building security, as increasingly they will have more devices and facilities that will be connected to each other. Credit: Pexels.

● Cybersecurity: Cybercriminals can take advantage of the ubiquity of technology and access to the entire functioning of an infrastructure. Grant Thorton's report The hidden costs of smart buildings highlights that any investment in smart buildings and technology involves security risks and requires special care to prevent cybercrime.

Although, as Bernárdez considers, “a great majority is waiting to see what happens in the next few months to implement changes,” the truth is that the world is no longer going to be what it was. As the new normality takes shape, it won't be so unusual for a robot to welcome us before entering the market or the office to measure our temperature and warn us of security measures. It will just be one more routine.