Alan Field looks at how the latest developments in 5G technologies may impact on Single Pane of Glass (SPOG) systems within facilities management — and how they can lead to a wide range of savings including more efficient energy management.

5G: should you be on the network?

5G simply means the fifth generation of mobile wireless technology. However, there is not yet the infrastructure in the UK or USA to support a nationwide 5G network, so devices that claim to be “5G ready” are literally that: ready to interact with 5G infrastructure but interfacing with 4G infrastructure for the time being (other than in some very specific locations).

When considering business systems that require 5G infrastructure, don’t be beguiled into believing the infrastructure that supports such devices already exists. It doesn’t but it should be arriving to a greater or lesser extent over the foreseeable future.

Some elements of the 4G infrastructure are being enhanced, eg a new generation of wi-fi routers called wifi6 (more technically referred to as IEEE 802.11ax). These will have a number of operating advantages over existing devices and should — in ideal operating conditions — provide a greater capacity and speed over an existing fibre network.

Indeed, big questions such as what radio spectrum (or frequencies) 5G devices will operate on and, just as importantly, what the mix of physical infrastructure and true wireless operation to support them will be, is still being finalised.

Governments decide upon the spectrum and different 5G operators may come to different conclusions on the mix between wireless and physical infrastructure to deploy. These decisions could have significant impact on how 5G could be used within a complex environment such as facilities management.

How will 5G interact with existing technologies?

One of the big ongoing technical debates is how 5G will interact with other communications technologies. Are we moving to a 5G-enabled world or, perhaps, a world where 5G becomes leader of the pack of many other wireless operating systems?

One key question is whether a 5G system interacting with existing technologies will affect reliability in communicating data. The speed at which data is retrieved or stored is called latency. Losing connection in a mobile phone call is annoying — but with an autonomous device, delay in the transfer of data may not be a viable option, depending on safety and other operating conditions.

With a complex heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system it may be possible to program in a certain amount of operating allowance — or protocols — for a degree of latency. Where one has thousands of devices exchanging data in one large building, such programs would become very complex to manage if reliability of data transfer could not be guaranteed.

Many of the sustainable aspects of 5G, such as enabling very precise and measurable control of energy use within a building are dependent on reliable and constant transfer of information such as temperature of a particular space at a particular time.

This leads to another key point. 5G is often seen as synonymous with IoT (Internet of Things) and with AI (artificial intelligence) but this is only partly true in terms of facilities management. There are already interfaces with a number of other communication technologies, eg 4G wifi and other wireless communication systems such as ZigBee, LoRa and mmWave. These, typically, work over shorter distances but are often more than adequate for competent communication within many environments, especially if they are part of a mesh network (a system where a number of communication devices work together within a local private network passing data, including instructions, to one and other).

In one sense, the individual buildings or wider estate being managed will decide on the importance, or otherwise, of 5G in the short term. Why wait for 5G infrastructure when devices using, say, LoRa or ZigBee already interact with each other within a defined area?

So, is 5G actually a tool rather than an enabler? Time will tell. It is only when devices go mobile that 5G really is a game changer. But for fixed plant, such as an air conditioning system, components can already have the means to communicate. This brings us to how they might be better integrated with SPOG.

The advantages of 5G in SPOG

In facilities management, a single pane of glass (SPOG) means a one-stop system of managing tasks. SPOG almost always implies a single dashboard approach with all information, tasks and data being shown on just one screen (or, at least, just one control console) rather than having to be integrated or extracted from various sources. Efficiency means money saved and, perhaps more importantly in the current marketplace, more effective reactive maintenance and energy management. Less waste means less waste of resources.

SPOG normally implies that human intervention is needed with the information provided but 5G has three profound implications in this field.

  • 5G means that thousands of components in all mechanical and electrical systems, including light switches, could communicate to the control room without wires. This is a mass of data that needs processing by the SPOG but also means a better (and potentially quicker) diagnostic. In theory, these could all operate on a public 5G network rather than a dedicated, private network which other wireless systems typically require.

  • The ability to collect component-generated data means other communications devices (eg ZigBee or mmWave) could be deployed as part of the communications structure.

  • 5G will also provide an effective communications vehicle to support AI programs. This means that components or devices could communicate and take autonomous decisions, ie instead of someone having to “press a button” to initiate an action, they will simply be informed of the action that has been taken. Such technologies already exist, of course, but 5G simply means more autonomous devices will be developed as they can operate in a wider sphere of operation, potentially worldwide, through the telecommunications network.

  • 5G will have sustainable implications. A building with less wiring (as light switches will be wireless devices) has immediate impact on the procurement of materials and construction of a building. There will be more efficiency.

  • Reactive repairs will be based on better diagnostics and therefore better managed, including fewer occurrences of unnecessary replacement of components that are not defective, and so less impact on the environment in terms of materials.

  • 5G will enable detailed and constant flow of data on all aspect of operations. One of the challenges of this is deciding what data to collect, for what purpose and what benefits will be achieved from it. The temptation to collect data for the sake of it will need to be resisted; the embarrassment of riches 5G will bring in terms of data collection needs as much careful planning as how to analyse the data collected.

  • SPOG assumes a controllable amount of data to be reviewed in real time. Autonomous devices may report their actions to a global central point rather than just the central point — the SPOG — in the building or estate office concerned. Indeed, devices collecting data about themselves is common with much IT equipment. How manufacturer data, or that collected within one large organisation, is shared with individual SPOGs needs to be considered at an early stage.

Last reviewed 13 February 2020