Stewart Langdown MSLL, Business Development Director at Mackwell Electronics explores the possibilities for a unified approach.

Building management systems along with Lighting, Fire and Emergency Lighting monitoring systems have been installed as individual systems in buildings for many years. They are, to a certain extent, standardised within their own market and within the region they operate. A good example is Emergency Lighting monitoring systems which are deemed a life safety system and mandatory in most regions.

However, they all have one thing in common – they are hardly interoperable and very dependent on the building infrastructure and the limitations of that system.

Whereas for example Lighting Control Systems are mainly based on DALI to control the luminaires, the actual switches and sensors are very often based on different protocols and there are gateway modules required to link the two disparate systems.

Fire Alarm systems almost exclusively work on proprietary protocols and Emergency Lighting Monitoring is a mix between DALI and Powerline communication. All together: complicated and difficult to unify.

There have been half-hearted attempts over the years to unify disparate protocols but the closest we have come is with the development of BACNet. This is by far the most successful way of linking different systems together into one unified language. However, there are again a series of gateways required that translate the protocols as well as a complex wiring infrastructure which adds cost and complexity.

What would be the right solution?

The requirement is that we need a communication method that is independent of the device brand and installation environment. A method that is Controls and Installation Agnostic

Perhaps, the best example of integration and alignment comes from a different industry. The mobile phone industry has achieved hardware-agnostic solutions; an example being the android operating system which works cross platform. It is no longer the device and its periphery (like the camera or the speaker) that are the decision-making factors on what software and apps can be run, it is much more the platform, the operating system that provides this functionality. A Facebook app can be run for example on 99% of all Android phones the same way a picture can be taken with all phones in a similar manner. Even though the hardware may differ– the operating system makes sure the final decision on how data is presented is always in a unified way and this does not change with hardware. We can share images, Facebook posts, WhatsApp messages regardless of the phone we use. Truly system Agnostics!
But how does this translate to a building and its individual control services? The ultimate target is that the building and its services behave exactly like a mobile phone. It should not be the building and its installation, as it should not be the services in the building that determine functionality.

Independently of what system is used for lighting controls and what wiring method is used for fire alarm systems, the user wants to see the same interface and have the functionality presented in the same way. Also the way different devices are connected has to be made as independent as possible from the building and its connected devices.

Making a start on a control agnostic solution

The first step towards a controls agnostic solution is therefore to get rid of all the different installation methods and variants. This is where wireless solutions come into place – there are basically two standards which are driving the wireless market, Bluetooth and Zigbee. Both have advantages and disadvantages, however we at Mackwell firmly believe that because of the broadly standardised Bluetooth technology and its availability on almost all mobile consumer devices that this is the right way to go.

The selection of Bluetooth as communication method would also solve the problem of different communication protocols in general. Bluetooth is standardised and available in a range of different devices. Individual standards can (and will) be translated into Bluetooth-friendly version in the future which makes them universal and unified. It will create a natural basic communication platform (like a basic operation system in mobile phones). If the communication platform is standardised than the user interface developers can independently of the manufacturer create Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) that have access to all services in the building from one central point in a unified and structured way.

Mackwell have been working in this direction for many years and we focused development towards the goal of being able to connect emergency lighting, lighting and fire alarm systems seamlessly with each other. Our new emergency driver platform, Origin, has been developed with this in mind and will be prepared to communicate over Bluetooth Low Energy and offers a variety of software functions and data that will improve the commerciality and safety of a building. Furthermore, we offer standardised system functionality that can be integrated into a central HMI which could be accessed from a central location. This will result in a unified view on the building services around emergency lighting virtually independent of the actual luminaire that is controlled.

So to come back to the headline – Is controls and installation agnostic a myth or is it actually achievable? – The market is definitely moving towards the direction of unity and standardisation. However, we still have quite some way to go until we are there. It needs the collective effort from technological-advanced companies, like Mackwell, to push into this direction but if we reach there the quality and functionality that can be made available to the end users is immense.

For further information on emergency lighting contact Customer Services on +44 (0) 1922 458 255 by email or by visiting the company’s website