Attune: Real-time occupancy sensing helps building management

The post-pandemic return to work has nudged office building operators and managers to focus more on ensuring clean and healthy environments, heightening the need for air quality sensors, among other new technology features.

But Attune, a Mclean, Virginia, company that provides indoor and outdoor air quality sensors also has noticed another related trend: Post-pandemic work policies have made it harder than ever to know how many employees are physically working in the office on a given day, and where they are located. 

After pandemic restrictions eased, some companies ordered full workforces back into the office, others decided to go mostly remote, and many others opted for some variation of a hybrid in-office and remote strategy. The latter could mean certain departments coming into the office on certain days while others stay at home, or one the full workforce coming in one day a week with in-person attendance otherwise optional. In some cases, some departments could come in just for meetings, filling conference rooms and leaving individual offices empty. There are more variations too numerous to detail here, but it is clear that building managers can face new and unpredictable challenges each day of the work week regarding how building management systems, such as environmental control features, need to be adjusted as a result.

Attune believes that occupancy sensors could make things easier for them, presenting them with new sensor technology that could be “like a smartwatch for the building” that can collect data on how many employees are enterprising specific spaces, according to Serene Almomen, Adjunct Professor at Georgetown and the co-founder and CEO of Attune (formerly known as Senseware).

“What's happening since COVID is that a lot of people are not working in the office, and even now with some organizations requiring people to come back, no one is saying 100% of the time,” she told Fierce Electronics. “A lot of the time, it's ‘Oh, pick three days or two days of the week to come into the building.’ That's going to be our future when it comes to occupying office buildings and commercial buildings. The problem with that is now the occupant traffic in the building changes all the time. Occupancy levels are so dynamic that they are no longer predictable for the build management.”

Almomen added that HVAC systems and related systems in the buildings, were designed and configured to heat, cool, clean, and circulate air based on full occupancy, and to continue managing building environments in that way if properties are not fully occupied on some days is wasteful and costly.

“It's an issue that a lot of the owners and operators of buildings are grappling with because they want healthy air for that dynamic occupancy,” she said. “They need to also optimize energy consumption and lower what they are paying for their energy bills, especially as a lot of companies are downsizing and top line revenues are being compromised. So it's a big, big issue.”

Attune’s solution is a sensor that is mounted on the ceilings at every entryway into every building space. It counts the number of people coming in and going out of those spaces–without clocking any facial recognition or other identifying features–and provides real-time data of occupancy. That data can be sent to building management systems and other devices via the Building Automation and Control Networks (BACnet) protocol. Attune also can apply AI and machine learning analytics to compare real-time data to historical data, making smart buildings even smarter as buildings become more connected with IoT devices and systems.

“You're now able to configure the HVAC system, for example, based on real-time data on the real-time occupancy of the space and ventilate that area to the right level,” she said.

Attune’s effort to address occupancy sensing is something that came out of the company observing market dynamics and the changing needs of its customers, such as Boston Properties, the the largest publicly traded developer, owner, and manager of Class A office properties in the US, and a client for Attune’s indoor air quality sensors. Almomen said that once customers see how real-time sensor data can be a gamechanger for the, they quickly starting asking for other kinds of real-time sensing and data collection capability

“That's where the occupancy sensing came from,” she said. “IAQ [Indoor Air Quality} was something we had done for a while, and then occupancy started to become important data to our clients.”

The company has a modular hardware architecture that allows it to adapt new sensor capabilities to the same hardware design. “We just find the right sensor and then plug it into the mix, and then all of our existing clients can use that capability if they need it.”

Almomen also said Attune is continually working to find out what the world will need next in terms of environmental sensing technology. For example, it is talking to an airport about technology to detect the kinds of air pollution that are specific to airports.