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Sensors Are One Solution to Understanding Facility Usage, But What Kind to Use?

The workplace has changed. Employees no longer work from 9-5 and never really sat in the same workstation all day long, but they definitely don’t now. The shift in workplace practice presents two challenges for workplace managers – how to create a workplace delivering the experience employees expect and how to redeploy workspace matching contemporary work styles ensuring optimal costs.

Sensors are a key contributor to overcoming these challenges. Deployed through all types of space, sensors capture where and when employees go while onsite. There are a range of sensors available using different technology to capture occupancy and utilization across workstation, neighborhoods/ agile zones and common spaces.

Naturally, the available technology has relative strengths and weaknesses. Data reliability and accuracy are critical selection criteria for occupancy sensors. Let’s review the types of sensors most commonly found in workplaces to track people movement driving more effective space planning.

Providing a safe, comfortable experience to building users while also meeting financial and operational targets has been CRES’ job specification from day one. Knowing when, where and how many people go into a space is fundamental to achieving this.

Several different technologies have been developed or adopted to capture movement patterns of people. Technology includes: Passive Infrared (PIR) sensors, video counting sensors, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) sensors, thermal counting sensors and beam counting sensors.

With the rise of Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine Learning, these sensor technologies have been augmented driving further value. The sensors operate as the eyes through facilities with IoT capabilities feeding what been seen back to the machine learning powered brain to make an effective response.

Passive Infrared Sensors

Passive Infrared (PIR) technology is most often used in motion detectors. The term passive refers to the fact that PIR devices do not radiate energy for detection purposes. Instead, they work entirely by detecting infrared radiation (radiant heat) emitted by or reflected from objects. Because they detect radiating heat or heat reflected from surfaces, PIR sensors don’t capture who or what has moved in the space.

PIR sensors can be used for multiple purposes through facilities – from triggering alarms and lighting by detecting movement in space (you’ve probably seen PIR sensors at ceiling level in the corner of a corridor, for example) to capturing space utilization data at the workstation level.

Because PIR’s only detect general movement, they can’t tell how many people are within its field of vision. They are better used to track granular utilization levels. Sensors can be mounted under a workstation detecting when someone sits there – indicating when the space was occupied and for how long. This data alone is useful for understanding workstation usage patterns – when workstations are being used based on neighborhoods/ zones and floors. Overlaying workstation utilization data with business hierarchy data (such as the business group assigned to a bank of desks) enables Space Planners and Business Group Leaders to work together rebalancing workstation allocation.

Where mounted

  • Under desktops

What captured

  • Workstation utilization – capturing when a specific space has a person in it and how long they are there

Strengths

  • Cost effective
  • Relatively easy to set up
  • Anonymized data at capture (only captures that a space has a person in it)

Weaknesses

  • Because PIR’s are usually positioned underneath a workstation, they are easy targets for employees to tamper with them with employees pulling them off of workstations

Video Counting Sensors

Video counting sensors effectively captures both occupancy and utilization data across different space types – in common spaces, at workstations and meeting areas.

Video sensors are mounted to a ceiling above an area of interest and count who passes underneath. Video sensors filter objects based on height, shape and size meaning the sensor can differentiate between what is and isn’t a person and how many people are within frame.

Understanding the volume of people moving through spaces and when is very useful. Space Planners can pull analysis from video counters to build a picture of how people interact with a building from the macro level (from entry to exit) to the micro (isolating usage to floor level, a bank of workstations or a single workstation).

Where Mounted

  • Ceiling mounted over an area of interest – banks of workstations, meeting rooms, common spaces

What Captured

  • Occupancy and utilization – the number of people in a space and how long they’re in that space

Strengths

  • Possible to achieve up to 95% accuracy
  • Versatile sensor capturing occupancy and utilization in multiple space types
  • Strong analysis – zoom out to macro examining full portfolio usage trends or zoom into the micro usage with one type of technology
  • Data capture is anonymous

Weaknesses

  • Calibrating during setup is complicated
  • Costly

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) Sensors

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) sensors capture utilization and occupancy data across multiple space types.

A beacon installed in a common space or in a zone sends a signal out over a range of 300 feet at regular intervals. The signal contains a combination of letters and numbers.

Employees will have installed a small app that runs in the background on their phones or will carry a wearable BLE receiver. Either the app or wearable interacts with the BLE’s signal and responded depending on how it’s been programmed. A response can be a simple notification to the cloud that a person is in the beacon’s range and how long they stayed for. Or, employees can be fed information base on their location enhancing their workplace experience. For instance, when stepping off the elevator on floor 7, the BLE beacon installed in the floor’s elevator lobby may be programmed to inform people in the lobby which workstations are available on that floor enabling them to quickly book a workstation, easily navigate to the area and get to work easier.

Where mounted

  • Typically on ceilings throughout facilities

What captured

  • Utilization and occupancy data – when spaces are being used and by how
    many people

Strengths

  • Configurable goals/ outcomes when interacting with beacons
  • Advantage over WiFi and GPS is BLE’s can provide a reliable pinpoint of
    a portable device inside a building
  • High accuracy levels
  • Data capture is anonymous

Weaknesses

  • Employees/ building visitors would need to install an app to run in the background on their phones or carry a BLE wearable receiver while on site

Thermal Counting Sensors

Thermal counters are used to count people as they enter or leave a space. Counters are mounted about a door and count people by detecting their body heat profile. The sensors have two count lines enabling devices to differentiate if a person is moving in-to or out-of a space.

Thermal counters are best-suited for general people counting and outlines the number of people coming into a building, floor or large space and the directions they travel in.

Where mounted

  • Above doorways (at entrances – to a building, floor, common area or meeting room)

What captured

  • General occupancy data – indicating how many people are in a space and footfall direction

Strengths

  • Anonymized data at collection – no privacy or security issues because no image is taken
  • Installation and cabling simple as devices are Powered over Ethernet (PoE)

Weaknesses

  • Can have issues with tailgating – not differentiating one person following closely behind another
  • Calibration during setup is difficult

Beam Counting Sensors

Beam counters are a cost-effective way of capturing very basic footfall insight.

Beam counters are installed at entrance ways with an emitter on one side and a reflective plate on the entrance’s opposite side. The reflective plate reflects the infrared beam. When the beam is broken, a count is registered.

Accuracy can be affected by several variables – a wide or busy entrance, a lack of differentiation between people and assets and even sunlight. Beam counters are not able to capture direction of travel. Also, they don’t differentiate between multiples of people or even assets! For instance, two people could walk past a counter at the same time. To the beam counter, this would be logged as one person. While, a person could be wheeling a chair down a corridor could be counted as two people. Direct sunlight onto the beam will also affect the system.

Beam counters are used as they are more accurate than a manually operated people counting clicker.

Where mounted

  • At entrance ways

What captured

  • General occupancy data – indicating very basically how many people are in a space

Strengths

  • Data capture is anonymous
  • Cost effective

Weaknesses

  • Very simple metrics – will not indicate footfall direction and does not differentiate individuals in groups or people from assets
  • Accuracy also affected by environmental conditions

Summary

Employees demand comfortable, safe facilities that are easy to use in this age of agile, flexible working.

Building optimization and cost-efficiency must be balanced against user needs.

Monitoring how, when and where users are using facilities through sensor technology is one solution to achieving this.