The Facility Technologist: Coming To Facilities Soon…

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the March 2006 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

The rapid pace of technology promises that, at least in some ways, the facility of tomorrow will look very different from that of today. Some of the most important innovations that will impact facility management over the next few years come in the areas of video surveillance, IP devices, data centers, and software systems. Let’s take a look.

Video surveillance is about to change dramatically. Cameras are going to think for themselves! The latest development in surveillance is called Video Content Analysis, and it allows computers to assume some of the work traditionally handled by people. The idea behind Video Content Analysis is that computers can interpret shapes seen in a video signal and understand what they are. By comparing what is seen in the video image with pre-loaded characteristics stored in algorithms, a computer system can distinguish a person from other shapes. The computer system can recognize people and track them as they move through the camera’s field of view.

Video Content Analysis programs can tell when a person enters an area designated as restricted. This technology is being used in museums and other facilities where members of the public are not allowed to be too close to valuable items. Users can also instruct these systems to send an alert if a person loiters in an area.

These systems can also tell when people are moving in the wrong direction. Pittsburgh International Airport is testing a system that watches people as they exit from secured gate areas and alerts security if anyone tries to walk back through the exit.

Some companies are taking this further, creating mini-computers that are mounted along with the cameras to perform the same analysis as is done by a centralized computer. Cradle Technologies in Sunnyvale, CA makes chips that allow cameras to operate independently and can monitor individual areas without having to be constantly connected to a central control system.

Cradle Technologies has also developed algorithms that allow the cameras to “learn.” As the cameras watch activity, they remember patterns and begin to analyze what is viewed as either routine or unusual.

This concept of a “thinking” camera solves some of the biggest problems of previous system generations. First, this type of camera does not need to be connected to a central processing system that analyzes imagery, saving a huge amount of bandwidth. Second, because each camera thinks independently, the processing power of this distributed network is phenomenally larger than a centralized system. Finally, people do not have to watch camera feeds.

IP devices will become ubiquitous. One of the most common complaints I hear from facility managers about adding systems to their buildings is about cabling. Anything additional needs a power supply, and virtually everything needs to be connected to some kind of control network—a building automation system, for example. This requires two complete sets of cabling—low voltage and line voltage. This is cumbersome, but it will change.

In 2002, IEEE ratified a standard 802.3af called Power over Ethernet, which supplies low voltage power over CAT5 and above data cabling. This means a device connected to the Ethernet network is also powered by the same cable; there are no extra power cables. Since the data cable is low voltage, it is much less expensive than a line voltage cable. Many people may not have heard of this, because the power supplied is fairly weak—only 12 watts at 48 volts. It cannot power anything more significant than a wireless access point.

However, IEEE is working on a new standard 802.3at, called PoEPlus, which will boost the power limit to as much as 45 watts. This means all kinds of devices can now be connected to, and powered by, the network.

Along with the rise of IP-based devices, facilities in the future will use a single cabling plant to connect and power a wide range of devices. Access control devices, such as door releases, IP-based video cameras, voice over IP (VoIP) telephones, building automation system devices, and even damper actuators will all be powered and controlled by the same single cable. This new IEEE standard removes the last roadblock to the true digital building by making it economically feasible to connect all devices via CAT cabling.

Data centers will require a new approach. A major shift is occurring in IT components. They are becoming extremely small and extremely hot—so hot, in fact, that the traditional data center can no longer support these super high density components. [See “Data Centers Heating Up,” TFM, August 2005.]

The industry response has been to create airtight, environmentally controlled cabinets that can deal with the extreme heat loads. The cabinets use a cooling loop from the facility HVAC system to cool components, and they can also house power conditioning and backup.

One unforeseen advantage of these sealed cabinets is they are actually miniature data centers and can be put almost anywhere. It is not necessary to cluster all IT systems, creating more potential locations for the equipment.

Software systems will finally be able to speak to each other. The latest trends in software development are making it easy for systems to pass information back and forth using standard communication protocols. This is exactly the opposite of what occurred in the 20th century when developers tried to make their systems incompatible with each other.

But today’s best software is designed using Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), which makes products easier to integrate with other systems through XML and Web services.

Facility managers can expect this to make multiple systems’ “plug-and-play” compatibility relatively easy. For instance, users will be able to plug in the CMMS to the accounting system, so costs from maintenance are automatically updated. This is possible today, but it is difficult and costly.

However, as older software architectures are replaced, this should change. There are already many systems that use SOA and XML. When purchasing software packages, facility managers should ask about the architecture; it will make a big difference in coming years.

With the incorporation of new technologies like these, the facility of 2010 will be very different from the one of today. Clearly, facility managers need to be ready.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Managementtextbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago,IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, andreliability of client business through technology.

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