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The Wonderful World of Sensors: Using and learning from the sensors around us



Pairing smart sensors and software is a powerful way to learn about, live in, and work from your spaces. From detecting crime and human trafficking, to cleaning the air in an office space, there is no limit to the ways that sensors can enrich your space and its operations.


In this blog post, a transcription of a podcast conversation between host Phil Ruane and special guest Todd Laudeman from ENSCO, Todd and Phil discuss how sensors can help you accomplish any goal! We’ll talk about important considerations, offer solutions to potential hurdles or concerns, learn about harnessing your sensor-collected data, and more.


From sophisticated sensor networks and systems that serve our government, to solutions that can help you stay safe and healthy in your own office, read along as we explore the many ways that sensors can protect, inform, and advance our lives.


(The following is an excerpt from the Elevated Environments podcast. Interview has been edited for clarity and length.)


Phil Ruane: We are keenly interested in sensor technology these days, as it is one of the best ways to gather data about our spaces, and it can be paired with software for better outcomes. We think of the sensor as one of the building blocks of a smart building. It's very small, but also very powerful.


Today, I'm pleased to let you know that we have a special guest, Todd Laudeman from ENSCO. ENSCO is a specialty solutions provider for aerospace, national security, avionics, railway and more. Todd with his team developed a sensor system called MicroSearch. This extremely sensitive sensor can detect a human heartbeat within a moving vehicle or shipping container, and it's ideal for detecting humans in shipping containers or in the backs of trucks. It's a great tool for preventing prison escapes, detecting stowaways, and combating human trafficking. Todd was discussing this particular sensor with his neighbor, who happens to be my boss, and she was intrigued by such a sensitive sensor and wondered if it would have any applications in an office space that uses surface cleaning with GUV and other tools. So we invited Todd to our office to check out our space and share his expertise on the subject. Since he came in, we also wanted to take the opportunity to interview him on our podcast to share a bit about the sensors he used, and to pick his brain a little bit about the many applications for sensors and how to harvest data in the best way possible. Here is our interview with Todd Laudeman.


Todd Laudeman: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for the invitation.


PR: So we wanted to pick your brain a little bit about all the different kinds of sensors there are because in the lighting business, we've got occupancy sensors that turn off the lights, and they're based on passive infrared technology or ultrasonic. Sometimes there's a little mic in there that detects human noise, but that's really about it. What kind of sensors do you work with and develop at ENSCO?


TL: Well, first of all, ENSCO actually doesn't typically develop the sensors themselves. The sensors are typically commercial, off-the-shelf capability that we then integrate into a solution set for a customer based on the need. We use sensors extensively in at least three of our major business areas, one being rail where we use sensors to support track safety and track inspection from a more virtual or real-time capacity without having to have people walk the tracks and put themselves in danger. We use sensors in the avionics and aerospace areas where we use a series of sensors, for example, to do predictive weather modeling for Cape Canaveral to make sure that when a launch takes off, it's not likely to get struck by lightning or do other things. That includes everything from downrange plumes of activity to just telling you what the weather's going to be.


In national security, we use sensors in two major ways. One is the product that I'm primarily responsible for called MicroSearch, which is a human presence detection system for finding stowaways in vehicles. These would be tractor trailers, shipping containers, cars... anything that someone would try to hide in to avoid detection. Prisons are a great example: guys trying to sneak out of prison in the laundry truck or the garbage truck. We can use geophone sensors that are capable of detecting the vibration created by their heartbeat and blood flow without having to actually physically inspect the vehicle.


We also have sensors for high value government facilities and other high value commercial facilities where you can do chemical, biological, radiation and nuclear detection. Again, that's more for a severe safety or security issue. You don't want somebody in a building releasing some terrible chemical that then travels through the air ducts and basically affects everybody. So in major areas, ENSCO's job is primarily to pull the right sensors for the right purpose together and provide that to a customer.


PR: Wow, that's really neat. And it sounds really advanced compared to some of what we have in the lighting business. A single tech, passive infrared standard occupancy sensor is used in our business for something that could be potentially dangerous, like GUV cleaning of surfaces and office spaces. Sometimes we feel it may not be accurate enough to detect people. And it could result in a false-on when the product should not be coming on. Now normally we would say just add more sensors to the space, but can you think of a technology that you might be able to add to a space, maybe some of these advanced sensors, to address that kind of problem?


TL: You might not need any more sensors, per se. I guess I have a couple of questions. One is obviously, you don't want anyone in the area when this GUV cleaning is done because it's harmful to them, correct?


PR: Yeah, it has the potential to hurt your eyes or your skin after a certain amount of exposure.


TL: Okay, and when you're inspecting the space, are you assuming that you don't have somebody sleeping in this space or you don't have somebody unconscious in the space, that's, that's not able to respond, I would hope? My theory would be that your sensors - and I've been to one of your offices and I was very impressed with what they have - seem to be doing the job. You just want that safety check that says “I've done everything I can and I really want to make sure there's no one there.” Typically what you could do is use both a visual and audio alarm just before your GUV system kicks off so that if anyone is in the space, they have time to get out and they know what's about to happen. You can set the timer on that any way you want and you can implement it any way you want. It might just be flashing the lights in the room. Since you say you have microphones and other capability, you could have a small audio warning: "GUV testing will begin in two minutes" or something like that.


Let’s just say the space is the entire office and you have somebody in the kitchen that might not be able to react that quickly. You can also put a failsafe in there so that they can enunciate to the system, "GUV off," and it just cancels that start until they're ready and have vacated the space. Then they say, "GUV on," and in another two minutes it goes again.


I found that humans use their voice in an emergency. Always the first thing you want to do is cry for help. They're not going to go search for a pin pad, they're not going to go search for something else and do it via even an app on their phone... they're going to just talk.





PR: That's right. So you've mentioned that you've worked in some high value areas, perhaps government, perhaps corporate, and the leaders of these companies or institutions have to make decisions on when to use specialty sensors. Some of these sensors might be chemical sensors, they might be heartbeat sensors or other kinds of sensors. When do you decide which type is best?


TL: It's really all about how valued the target is and what the customer wants to achieve with the placement of the sensors. How fast do they want to react? Does it have to be instantaneous? Or can it just be a warning series? Typically what we do is we have experts in the company that go into a facility and we'll do an assessment of that facility. Everything from what do you have now, to what is the space like that you need? What kind of sensor might you want? What is your threat profile, if you will. In some buildings, the threat profile might only be the inadvertent release of some sort of cleaning chemical into the system that just makes everybody's eyes burn. But in some places, it could be a very dangerous and biological agent that was released in order to actually kill people. And so you have to go through the problem first to find out what the customer wants to achieve, then work from there to just integrate those together into a system that you can use.


It may still require human intervention. It may be that with an array like this, and with that kind of level of security, you'd want the sensor to do its job and warn you and alert you. But it still creates a position where the human would be in the link somewhere to make a decision and to take some other action.


PR: You mentioned at the very beginning that a lot of what ENSCO does is they're taking sensors that are off-the-shelf or maybe basic and you are harnessing them into full system solutions. And I presume that requires some level of software or programming. Is that a correct assumption?


TL: Oh, absolutely, yes. You have little API's, which are just the little bit of software that allows the sensor to communicate with whatever your hub is or communicate among themselves or with your base. But then you have the software that is the decision-making process behind it. What do you do with that sensor data? When the sensor alarms, do you just ring a bell in the building? Or do you make other decisions or even turn on other sensors? In some cases, you might have a system that detects a biological leak or a biological agent in the air that is dangerous. And the first thing you want to do is see where it is. So they actually have a camera tied to that sensor that then turns on so you can actually see that area. Is somebody there? Do you see what looks like a steaming flare, throwing up smoke? What do you see?


You can get more and more sophisticated where it ties into the building's management system. So, turns on the air conditioner, turns off the air conditioner, opens doors, closes doors. In the most sophisticated systems, if you can model a plume, if you have a series of sensors that are picking up this same chemical agent, then you can build a plume direction that shows you the plume's movement and trajectory, so we want to have everybody evacuate the building in the opposite direction. And you may want to have first responders coming in from the opposite direction as well.


These are not trivial systems. They can have an entire IT infrastructure behind them to store the data, to manipulate the data, to display the data. And actually, in your offices that when I visited the other day, you'll see that some of your sensors provide the same thing: they have built in capability to display and they have sort of dashboards that can say, “this is how many sensors are turned on. These are the ones that are doing this, these are the ones that are doing that.” That's all the software communicating with that little sensor.


PR: Right. We found that in our office, these sensors produce and collect so much data in real-time that it can be difficult to sift through and look for what's really important and use it to make decisions and optimizations and such. Based on your career with ENSCO, do you have any tips for someone in our space where we're trying to take the most important data and use it to the best of its ability?


TL: The people that manage the databases and data repositories are just as important as the people that write the levels of code used to control the sensor. There are even tools you can use. One is a company called MicroStrategy, for example, that creates a very complicated tool for mining large quantities of data and producing information out of them specific to either a report or an action. And that's it. That's an art all of its own, but that's exactly what you need. You need somebody that understands how long to keep the data. Is the data expandable? Where do you access it? Is it real time? Or are you just producing a summary of information that's like a report after the fact. All of that has to be taken into account when you combine the software to control the sensor, what you do with that data, and how you act on it.


PR: Can you explain the history of basic sensor-to-software integration? Where that kind of started, and where you see it going in the future? If you could weigh in on that, that'd be interesting.


TL: I don't want to go too far back in history. I can go a lot further back than you. The first sort of commercial use of sensors that we all are familiar with is automatic door openers at grocery stores or anything, any store. In the old days, that was a pressure plate: you stepped on a pad right in front of the door, and that created the information that the door needed to open. Now, it's a proximity sensor- it's something that radiates further out. So as you're approaching the door, it actually opens in time without you having to slow down. And so that's probably as basic as it gets. We're all so familiar with that, and that's moved on to the sensors that are in your newer vehicles that give you a blind spot warning, or wiggle your seat when you're close to something or, even more sophisticated now, will parallel park your car for you.


I think that sensors are going to get more and more sophisticated. They're going to get smaller and smaller, easier to use, cheaper to produce. And they will also lend themselves to be used in arrays so that you can use multiple sensors of the same type, or multiple sensors of different types, to package them together to get you the solution that you want. These sensors are being developed every day.


I would say that the future of sensors right now, the closest we can witness it, is running around on Mars and that rover and that little drone helicopter. Think about that: that thing is using sensors and autonomous decision making to do an exploration project that we can only witness from days away, if you will. Even if we send it a signal, it's going to take a long time to get there. So these devices that they're using, there are the bleeding edge of the sensor technology that all of us will begin to use as everyday products in the next 10 years probably.


PR: Yeah, that's really interesting about Mars exploration. So much of that has to be... is that considered AI?


TL: Oh, absolutely AI. Sensors are both smart and dumb. Sensors are very good at detecting things, and it's built into their technology. But they tend to do the same thing every time. I mean once you figured out what the sensor does, then it's repeatable and that's what you're counting on. Artificial intelligence is the ability for the sensor or a suite of sensors, and the software that supports it, to make intelligent decisions based on experience. So they need to turn up the volume, they need to look in a different direction. They do other things, but so you can teach it. That's another skill set, as well. Artificial intelligence, the people that build that into equipment, are very unique specialists, indeed. But it's going to be more and more in the future.





PR: Well, that was fascinating. And you've given me and all of us a lot to think about. I'm really eager to see how commercial buildings and schools and higher ed, all of these segments, take these advanced capabilities and run with it in the future.


I want to thank you very much, Todd for coming on. Is there anything else that you wish to leave with the audience before you go?


TL: One of the things that I really liked about my visit to your office was that you were literally using your office as an R&D center, and a learning center for this equipment. When you go to present that to your customers, the more you know about the sensors and the way to control them and what you can get out of them, the better solution you're going to help them arrive at. Keep doing that. I mean, that is really impressive that you guys are learning and using different things. Even sensors that do the same thing, learning how one might have a better impact on one solution than another.


PR: Well, it was nice of Todd to plug our headquarters up in Baltimore. We really have done a lot of work in it. We've arrayed that office with very sophisticated sensors that can measure a great deal of data. More than just occupancy data but also data related to foot traffic, temperature, air quality, and more. At the Lighting Environments and Environments headquarters, there's no shortage of data reported. And now we're working on creating the best systems for harvesting that data. We're building an app that can alert managers of irregularities and ideas for optimization. We'd love for you to be our guest again.




To learn more about powerful sensors and what they can do for you, check out this interview in its entirety on the latest episode of the Elevated Environments podcast.