Autonomous and connected systems put the “smarts” in smart buildings

Purdue College of Engineering
Purdue Engineering Review
4 min readApr 28, 2020


Smart buildings are vital to a sustainable future — and autonomous and connected systems are moving us “smartly” in that direction. A smart, high performance building uses automated controls to maximize indoor environmental quality for the occupants while minimizing operating costs and impact on the external environment. Like any engineered autonomous system, it should function fully with no — or minimal — human intervention.

That’s why smart buildings need local “sense” and external connections. Local sensing via Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and devices enables optimal controls and automated fault detection and diagnostics. Wireless internet connectivity acquires such data as weather forecasts and real-time variations in utility rates, coordinates with other buildings as a shared grid resource, and communicates with external service providers to schedule maintenance and repairs.

At the Center for High Performance Buildings (CHPB) at Purdue, we are conducting research necessary to enable smart and connected buildings of the future. This includes defining overall performance metrics for smart buildings that combine the effects of environmental quality (thermal, air-quality, visual and acoustic “comfort”); costs (utilities, maintenance and repairs); and impact on the environment (CO2 emissions and overall life-cycle impacts).

Maximizing the environmental quality inside smart buildings demands an occupant-centered approach to design and control. Smart buildings should be connected and responsive to occupants through smart occupant-feedback devices.

Minimizing downtime is another important aspect of delivering that environmental quality, and automation can help here. For example, diagnostic automation includes sensors and models of performance expectations to monitor deviations from normal performance and to detect and isolate faults. With repair automation, the building and its diagnostic system are connected to a service provider that delivers parts and labor to the site — which robots will handle in the future. It will also include “prognostics,” in which equipment and system failure, as well as degradations, which are anticipated and serviced in advance.

We are developing a number of tools and technologies to enable high-performance smart buildings. The goal is to solve the classic optimization challenge — in this case, determining how to minimize costs while maximizing overall indoor environmental quality with the least amount of impact on the external environment. This requires many elements:

· Computational models that “learn” from data

· Ubiquitous sensors, including wearables for occupants to measure things like metabolic rate (via smart watches) and facial temperatures (via external infrared sensors)

· Predictive control algorithms for optimal supervisory control

· Automated fault detection, diagnostics, impact evaluation and prognostics

· Robotics for visual site inspection, energy analysis and delivery of parts and repair

· Advanced cooling/heating equipment for reducing energy and environmental impact

· Advanced controls for lighting and for daylighting (illuminating buildings by natural light)

· Improved methods for delivering better indoor air quality

· Grid-responsive control algorithms across multiple aggregate buildings

· Advanced smart building envelopes (exteriors, or shells) with integrated sensing, passive or active cooling/heating devices, controls and embedded intelligence

Our efforts are funded through the Purdue CHPB; grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE) and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E); and private sector support. We plan on leveraging our critical mass of faculty, facilities and projects around high-performance buildings to attract additional large-scale government grants with industry partners to focus on the autonomous, connected, high-performance buildings of the future.

Images provided courtesy of Parrot Drones SAS.

This investment reflects our belief that smart, high-performance buildings are critical to improving global sustainability through optimal use of precious energy resources and reduced impact on the environment.

James E. Braun

Herrick Professor of Engineering and Director of the Center for High Performance Buildings,

School of Mechanical Engineering,

Member Purdue Engineering Initiative in Autonomous and Connected Systems,

College of Engineering Purdue University