Five Tech Trends Impacting Facility Management

From virtual reality to drones and AI, developments in the broader technology space have increasing relevance and presence in facility management.

By Steven Lambert

1. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

No technology is welcoming more optimism or caution than virtual and augmented reality. Virtual reality (VR) headsets which envelop you in a realistic world have found success through the Oculus Rift and Playstation VR, while being denigrated as a fad similar to 3D. Augmented reality (AR) meanwhile, which overlays digital elements on the real world, has risen and fallen with the popularity of Pokemon Go. The usefulness for facilities managers may not be immediately obvious.

When you consider that the technology has its origin in video games, however, the applications become more apparent. After all, virtual worlds require navigable virtual buildings, often designed by qualified architects and containing interactive objects. Extending this expertise to BIM systems would allow for virtual floorplans straight from a science fiction film. You could pan around a building based on legacy and active sensor data, spotting problems and zooming in on areas. You could even design single rooms within the simulation and stand inside them, checking the positioning of sensors and optimising the space to its digital occupants.

AR devices like Microsoft’s Hololens meanwhile could overlay routes for service workers, showing exactly where they are needed next. A solution has already been developed to help with elevator maintenance, projecting relevant data and highlighting problem areas in real time. Eventually these capabilities will be merged with building management software, sourcing all of its data and feeding your changes back into a simulated model to predict the effects.

2. Drones

With drones finding a use in everything from war zones to online deliveries, we’ve become passe about the benefits of these hovering delivery systems. But the uses of drones for facility management are only just being explored. The most obvious one is observation of the external envelope of a building. Sending a drone equipped with a high resolution camera is a quicker and safer way to check for damage to a building’s exterior than sending people up.

Drones can also work more easily in a variety of conditions, with built-in night vision or lighting and protection against environmental hazards. Thermal imaging cameras also make it the simplest way to check a large facility’s energy efficiency. And with developments in battery life and manual dexterity, drones could become more like flying robots, cleaning, and repairing difficult to reach spots. They might even be automated, flying from their charging stations to carry out duties. Speaking of which…

3. Robotics

Robots could be pretty helpful in various aspects of facility management. Having already found a use in retail facilities to “stack and pack,” we could see more front of house automation linked to a building management system or similar software. Cleaning robots could carry out their duties automatically, receiving instructions on where they are needed. One hotel in Japan is already using robot receptionists to take bookings and answer basic questions. Rather than relying on manual human input to a digital system, many tasks could take place entirely on the network, increasing the response time and reliability of data.

Combined with elements of machine and deep learning, these robots could even improve their efficiency over time, learning from each other. and transmitting this to the central hub.We could feasibly end up with a situation where a robot can jack into a computer terminal and fix software problems by itself.

If this all sounds a bit terrifying, don’t worry: there’s a little way to go before they can walk around. You’ll be safe in the stairwell.

4. Wireless Protocols

We already have keycards, but these near field communication (NFC) devices are turning into all access passes for unified IoT networks. Imagine a system that signs you in as you walk through the doors, unlocks rooms ahead of you, loads your account on the computer as you enter a cubicle, and tells you where you parked your car as you walk into the lot. There’s an obvious security issue here, but it’s arguably better than a key or keycard. A wireless device that you can keep in your pocket or a bag means you don’t have to get it out.

And there are all sorts of untapped possibilities for connecting with your phone. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi already allow for connectivity with workplace devices, and we could even see a situation where an app or game tracks your activity in the workplace and rewards you with, say, cash for the vending machine.

5. Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning

Often confused and conflated, artificial intelligence (AI) has ended up as an umbrella term for all kinds of autonomous technology. Principally AI refers to machines imitating and bettering human performance. The limits of what we can currently accomplish are sometimes called Narrow AI — for instance, the ability for a computer to beat someone at chess. This isn’t down to any actual intelligence from the computer as we understand it, but rather its ability to memorize and cross-reference millions of moves to find the best one for any given scenario. If we teach a computer how to do something within very basic parameters, it can often do it better and faster than us.

Now developments called machine learning and deep learning are allowing computers to think for themselves, albeit in a guided fashion. By finding patterns in data using a set of algorithms, computers can build their own solutions to problems, and reinforce these with every new set of information they receive. This technology is what drives face detection on Facebook or chatbots like Cleverbot, which imitates the contents and syntax of conversation based on what people have said to it. Again, this isn’t truly intelligent, but it is more adaptive than traditional systems.

This ability to harvest “big data” is already a driving force behind the expanding role of facility management in an organization. The ability for a computer to analyze and apply this data itself would change this dynamic once again. It wouldn’t remove the role, but it might reduce it to a more advisory or oversight led position. For the foreseeable future, a real person will be needed to keep an eye on computer systems and make sure they function as intended. And as the scope of these systems grows, the demands of the role will grow with it.

s_lambert_headshotLambert is COO at MCS, a provider of integrated real estate, workplace and facility management software solutions for large private or public sector organizations, helping to improve real estate performance in terms of total cost, risk reduction, employee satisfaction, brand perception, and sustainability. The company’s global headquarters is located in Begium, with North American headquarters in New York City.