At first glance being able to remotely determine whether a room is occupied may not seem like the most innovative of pursuits. However, for Jacob Brooks and Abhinand Sukumar, this seemingly small idea could have huge implications.

Brooks and Sukumar, both students in electrical and computer engineering, are working on a project called Occulow, part of Associate Professor Anthony Rowe’s Wireless, Sensing, and Embedded Systems (WiSE) Lab. The goal of Occulow is to create a small, economically-priced, low power, door-mounted sensor unit that can accurately sense and transmit occupancy data. The device will transmit the data through the long range wide area network (LoRaWAN), which is crucial in replacing traditional cellular or Wi-Fi networks currently being used to interface with devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT).

The applications for inexpensive and widespread occupancy sensors are numerous. Commercially the device could be used for monitoring and collecting data on shopping habits, public space usage, and lighting. However, the most promising application that the Occulow team has been exploring is heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) control.

If we can have a hundred of these sensors sending packets every thirty seconds, we can get a more realistic idea of how the network performs under a heavier load.

Jacob Brooks, Student, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

About 40% of energy generated in the U.S. is consumed by residential and commercial buildings. Of that energy, about half goes into HVAC, meaning that heating and cooling account for about one fifth of the energy consumed by the U.S. every year. Having smart devices that can sense when a room is occupied and relay that information to the building’s HVAC unit, so it can know when to turn on or off, could ultimately translate to huge savings in energy efficiency and costs. “We’re talking with Facilities Management Services (FMS) right now to count people moving in and out of the main basketball gymnasium, so they can know exactly how many people are in there,” said Brooks, “they can know when to turn on and off the giant heating systems that move air through the space.”

Occulow is just one in a number of ventures being taken into the emerging IoT field, but its implications as a demonstration of what is possible could be huge. The sensor connects to the OpenChirp framework, a platform developed in Dr. Rowe’s WiSE lab. “The goal of OpenChirp and this [Occulow] is just to be able to make it super easy for people to connect whatever they want to the internet and the cloud,” says Brooks. Sukumar adds, “everything comes back to us through the LoRaWAN platform. Then, we have web developers who can translate this data into our website that people can use and get the data they want.”

Brooks and Sukumar have ordered components for 100 sensors, which they hope to have assembled and deployed across campus within the next couple months. According to Brooks, “if we can have a hundred of these that are sending packets every thirty seconds, we can get a more realistic idea of how the network performs under a heavier load.” In creating one of the first large scale deployments of devices operating on LoRaWAN, they hope to open the door for future developments in the IoT sphere.

“This device,” says Sukumar, “apart from doing people counting, is representing what you can do with this platform.”