Background

Sensor City is a thoroughly modern building, electronically managed and monitored 24/7. We have located sensors in various positions around the site, monitoring all manner of values critical to the decision-making process of our building management system. But, we like data, and a long running internal project has been to gather more precise information from very specific spots around the building, and interrogate, learn from and plot ourselves, using off the shelf and inexpensive components and open source software tools.

Ultimately though, we really like the idea of a detailed dataset that represents the very building in which we work. The data generated would be a great baseline for experimentation around visualisation and the basis for some interesting machine learning.

Deploying sensor and IoT technology within our own building not only benefits the occupants, but this creative R&D project has provided useful insights which can drive further understanding and innovation in this area."
'Environment monitoring is key for smart buildings and space planning, impacting everything from the health and well-being of staff, to efficient use of heating and ventilation systems."

Daniel Watson, Head of Engineering at Sensor City

Approaching Sensor City

With environment monitoring being the “Hello, world!” of most IoT Projects (we must attribute this quote to one of our resident members, Patrick Fenner of DefProc Engineering), it’s a topic we often see raised, and something we thought would make a good case study and demonstrator project.

Our initial approach was to build up a picture of the “zones” within our building, areas that differ due to breeze, sunlight and other environmental factors, then undertake some AI and data analytics on the findings.

 

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There are several great quality sensors on the market for exactly this kind of application. We opted for a Bosch BME680 for temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure, and an SGP30 for Volatile organic compounds and CO2, which give a nice picture of the air quality around our site.

These sensors are commonly used as they are easy to get hold of and are well supported with libraries and demonstration projects. To move the data around and do something useful with it, we ran with a PyCom FiPy device as it has LoRaWAN on board, allowing the data to be sent over long ranges with very little power. This frees the device of a dependency on Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and makes it quick and easy to deploy anywhere there is LoRa coverage.

Once the data is sent by LoRa, it is received by The Things Network (or TTN as it is known), our platform of choice for this kind of application. The packets sent are decoded and useful values can be seen directly on the TTN server, which makes it easy to sanity check the data but also simplifies the next stage – moving the data to a graphing platform.

For this, we chose to use Graphite as the metric engine and Grafana as the visualisation platform. However, the data only gets as far as TTN, so to move it from there, we built a translation flow in (the frankly awesome) NodeRED. This can be thought of as a one-for-all IoT platform, as it simplifies the integration of multiple systems effortlessly, requires very little programming, and is fast and easy to work with, as well as being open source.

NodeRED reaches out to the TTN server, grabs the decoded data, converts it into a format that Graphite can use to store the data (along with time stamps etc), and from there, the Grafana visualisation system is used to plot and display the data in a useful format.

Working into the future

Off the back of this work, the dataset would be interesting to use as the basis for some machine learning, which could aid in decision making processes around building management. Our Operations, Facilities Management and Laboratory teams will be working closely together over the coming months to use the insight gathered to maximise operational efficiency within our hub.

Results

LoRaWAN coverage in Liverpool City Region is fantastic. As well as the deployment within our own innovation hub, the vast majority of the city centre is well covered by it – meaning that technically our application hardware can work from anywhere in Liverpool. Keep in mind that this is a network that is free to use too, so for start-up and scale up businesses, this kind of platform can be a real game changer. Combining the power of TTN, with free tools like NodeRED, Graphite and Grafana, the basis is there for a lot of monitoring and evaluation systems to be created, without having to spend a penny.

Our in-house Engineers have found that the data can be predictably and reliably transmitted exactly as specified, and the whole application only uses very small amounts of code. The resulting dashboard looks great and offers a huge amount of flexibility in its visualisation.

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