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Node know-how: Building control via the Internet
The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) expects to move into a new 196,000-square-foot laboratory in 2005 that uses an innovative building controls system (BCS). Raffi Krikorian, a graduate student at the Media Lab, helped develop the scalable BCS, which relies on basic Internet nodes to control lighting and HVAC systems, among a number of other building components.
If the MIT system comes to market, its developers say it will bring vastly simplified and lower-cost controls, unburdened by some of the complexity facing current BCS.
“The problem with current networking systems is that they run off a server,” Krikorian says, so failure of the central server causes the control system itself to crumble.
Krikorian says the new BCS will address other problems with existing building control systems. To achieve this, MIT’s Media Lab team is creating a Internet protocol (IP)-based system that combats scaling problems and interoperability concerns, avoids hierarchical networks, and limits the proprietary licensing restrictions evident in other systems.
MIT’s system puts nodes within a building — at a light switch, for example — and uses IP addresses to identify the switch.
“IP addresses are the base level of Internet connectivity,” Krikorian says. “By comparison, HTTP is two layers of connectivity above IP.” HTTP, or hypertext transfer protocol, is the communication protocol used by World Wide Web servers.
The system currently operates these IP nodes along a six-wire lighting track — two for data transmission and four for power. Krikorian anticipates that the system will be available commercially within five years and that power and data transmission will take place concurrently on only two wires.
Another attractive feature of the MIT control system is its low cost. Krikorian is hand-building the nodes with off-the-shelf parts for $5.
Krikorian anticipates that via mass production and constant improvements in silicon transmission technology, per-unit node cost could drop to about $1.
“We’ve spoken with manufacturers about building these nodes into building devices,” he says. If the system works according to MIT’s plan, many devices, such as light switches and thermostats, will contain a built-in IP address, plus the ability to communicate via a building’s power transmission system.
Krikorian also hopes that within five years his control system also will expand so that it can be used to control plumbing systems, tag readers and sensors.
“But we’re not so sure about elevator controls just yet,” he says. “The code to write controls for elevators is far more complex, and I don’t think I want the danger of getting it wrong.” Still, the system could change the way people view the Internet.
Says Krikorian, “Ideally, people will begin to think of the Internet as a utility, like electricity.”