An Australian company, using a wireless solution developed by University of NSW, is rolling out technology across the country that allows buildings to monitor themselves and report problems autonomously– and even talk to your smartphone.

Known as EMIoT, the new wireless platform relies on LED exit signs as the backbone of a low-power meshed network that covers 99.9% of a building – even reaching underground carparks, pump systems and air conditioning.

The company which is commercialising the technology, WBS Technology, has installed it in more than 10 apartment complexes – the latest is at Castle Hill, northwest of Sydney. 

Dr Wen Hu of UNSW's School of Computer Science and Engineering, said its as simple as installing emergency lights. “They all automatically connect to each other, and that creates the network,” he said.

“The emergency lights can then be networked with other devices via various wireless technologies, including Bluetooth, which allows them to be controlled locally with a smartphone or via the Internet from anywhere in the world.”

Each exit sign or emergency light acts as a node in the network, passing information back and forth across a building.

Once operating, other devices can be connected to the network – ventilation and pumping systems, security cameras and sensors, access doors to common areas and halls – allowing all of them to be controlled and monitored remotely.

EMIoT is an example of the much-vaunted Internet of Things (IoT) network, in which all manner of devices – computers, lights, cars, home appliances, etc – can connect, interact and exchange data seamlessly with each other and across the Internet.

What’s new is that WBS, an emergency lighting manufacturer in Sydney, is using the technology to transform itself into an entirely new business: instead of just making and selling emergency lights, it also offers ‘sensors as a service’.

For a fixed monthly fee, WBS provides a network of emergency and other lights that monitor themselves, react to their surroundings and to remote commands, and can have other devices added to the same network.

At the retrofitted apartment building in Castle Hill, lights in the underground carpark dim when there’s no movement and brighten when there is, as do lights in hallways and common areas. If a light fitting fails, building managers know which one and how long it has been inoperative. 

As the network expands, energy usage and the status of heating and cooling can be tracked, flow gauges report back on water usage and identify leaks, ventilation and pumping systems monitored remotely, and hot water systems checked for faults.

Even residents trapped in an underground carpark would be able to communicate with building managers via an app.

Luke Gibbeson of WBS Technology said the company has created a smart building ecosystem.

“There’s 14 buildings in this apartment complex, and we’ve installed a networked emergency lighting solution throughout them without any cabling and with no supporting network infrastructure,” he said.

“Our communications gateway looks like a standard exit sign, which relays other emergency lights communication to the cloud and acts like a normal exit sign – so it’s a plug and play system. You can install in a new building or retrofit into an older one, like this one,” he added.

“As more IoT devices are installed, they can be added to the network, and all managed remotely via a cloud-based service, or locally through a smartphone app.”

Originally, WBS approached UNSW about creating a network of emergency lights using Zigbee, a low-power, low data rate, close proximity wireless network used by medical devices.

However, emergency lights can often be in out-of-the-way places where communications are unreliable.

Within two years of applying for the initial TechVouchers funding and approaching UNSW as a research partner, WBS now has a commercialised smart building solution, and UNSW made valuable research progress in a new field.

Professor Ian Gibson, Associate Dean (Industry and Innovation) at UNSW’s Faculty of Engineering, who oversees industry collaboration, said the solution is set to transform WBS's business model and create a new 'sensors as a service' market where none existed.

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