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Smart buildings harnessed for pandemic response

AI supports infection detection, remote operations and ongoing resilience
Thursday, March 26, 2020
By Jiri Skopek

With the growing threat of infectious disease, smart buildings will play an increasingly important role to help detect and control their spread, facilitate the remote operation of buildings in lockdown situations and interact with the grid to increase energy resiliency. Advanced applications, smart buildings and smart grids that offer transactive modes of generation and usage have the potential to increase safety and resiliency and increase the sustainable production and consumption of electricity.

The World Economic Forum estimates that the projected value to society in terms of cost savings for consumers and reduced carbon emissions surpasses any other individual digital initiative. As recent experience in China has demonstrated, there are also benefits in a pandemic.

Diagnostic and identification capabilities to limit spread of infection

Temperature sensing and imaging equipment that integrates intelligent video and artificial intelligence (AI) are becoming part of epidemic prevention and control. This has been deployed in China with the application of proactive surveillance to detect fever and rapidly diagnose infection.

High-performance infrared thermal cameras, installed at the entrances of major train stations and airports, could capture thermal images of the commuter flow in real time to rapidly detect people with an abnormal temperature. This also reduces the cost and potential exposure to infection associated with manual temperature checks. AI can establish the identity of any passengers registering high temperatures within the measurement area, making it possible to separate out people suspected to be infected and to identify who should be quarantined.

However, such technologies would more likely be viewed an infringement on privacy in North America and Europe. That’s already emerged in the United Kingdom with the Daily Telegraph’s attempt to install desk monitoring sensors and Barclays’ monitoring of the time employees spent at their desks. Both initiatives were scrapped due to pushback.

Many hospitals already use smart applications to monitor hygiene. They include white light disinfection LED technology and washroom sensors to track whether staff are washing their hands for a sufficient length of time. Humidity levels can also be programmed by building management systems (BMS) to create indoor conditions that will minimize the survival rate of viruses.

Facilitating social distancing and remote building operations

Smart technology can facilitate work, education and entertainment for people self-isolating in their homes. As also seen in China, it should be possible to create a telemedicine internet feed that enables residents to submit daily health status reports to a community worker, who is designated for a building or a district. The assigned health worker could then respond with a message, a phone call, or even a home visit as needed.

The city of Guangzhou launched such an application with an “I need” feature for quarantined residents to obtain daily necessities such as food and medications. As such technology becomes more commercially available, it could become a service that property managers could offer to tenants.

The analytic and diagnostics capabilities of smart building AI and building automation can enable self-supporting and remote operations, which can be valuable in a pandemic. With cloud-based information about the HVAC and lighting control systems, the building operator can monitor and control the building remotely for maximum impact on energy consumption maintain balanced thermal equilibrium in all seasons, no matter whether the building is fully occupied or almost empty.

Regardless of the current exceptional conditions, this can optimize occupant comfort, save money and reduce carbon emissions. A digital twin manifestation of the building can further extend the building operators capability to access all operational data remotely.

Aligning with climate change concerns and enhanced resiliency

While climate change may have slipped somewhat from people’s consciousness and priorities right now, it’s noteworthy that the pandemic and climate crises are both problems of exponential growth against a limited capacity to cope. In the case of the virus, the danger is that the number of infected people could overwhelm health care systems. With climate change, the concern is that emissions growth will overwhelm ability to manage consequences such as droughts, floods, wildfires and other extreme events.

A brief interval of emissions reductions due to COVID-19 related pullbacks or shutdowns of emitters will not stop other extreme weather events that are already in motion. It will be critical to build resilience on all fronts — and the smart grid and building-centred transactive energy can be part of that effort.

A smart grid is an electricity supply network that uses digital communications technology to detect and react to local changes in production and demand. The capability to respond to the changing conditions and “talk to the grid” requires a smart platform that is capable of supporting a wide range of applications, including: HVAC systems; electric vehicles; and distributed-energy and whole-building loads. Platforms such as VOLTRON are rapidly being developed and tested, providing the capacity to respond to occupants needs, produce and store energy, and communicate with the utility, the grid and other buildings.

The smart grid is seen as a means to more efficient transmission of electricity; quicker restoration after power disturbances; reduced operations and management costs for utilities; and, ultimately, lower power costs for consumers. Combined with renewable power and storage, a smart grid also offers resiliency, which increases the grid’s coping capacity in times of pandemic or other catastrophic events.

Jiri Skopek is an architect, planner and specialist in smart, green buildings and communities.

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