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Robots in the workplace: This one scans for indoor air quality and more

August 03, 2023

By Rick Huijbregts

The IAQ Robot gathers data on how workplaces are used. The information helps with employee health and future space planning.

A version of this blog first appeared as “Space explorer,” in Design Quarterly Issue 18.

Our expectations for the workplace are changing. As pandemic anxiety and protocols fade, people are spending more time in the office. With a greater awareness about air quality and health and safety in the workplace, employers are rethinking how they supply safe and comfortable spaces to support a broader return to the office.

At the same time, new standards and regulations are emerging around healthy and safe buildings, particularly in North America. Our clients are hungry for knowledge about where they stand in relation to these new regulations. For instance, the new WELL Building Standard (which rates buildings in relation to human health) is taking the real estate industry by storm. More than 40 percent of property owners and tenants are pursuing WELL to show employees and clients the depth of their commitment to their well-being. Meanwhile the conversation around space utilization has resumed.

Owners, operators, and managers want to know how space is being used relative to productivity, efficiency, and occupancy. They want answers to the question: how much and what kind of space do we really need? Many companies do not have much insight into how well their workplace spaces perform. Sure, some buildings are outfitted with intelligent systems, sensors, and certain capabilities that they may make available to tenants. But not many.

Wellness is at the forefront of the new workplace for many employers.

Companies invite consultants with clipboards or sensors into the workplace in hopes of gaining that insight. The consultants walk around. They scan the space. There is a lot of human labor involved to create snapshots of the workplace, observing standards and performance in terms of occupancy, air quality, and temperature. One alternative is for building owners to invest heavily in technology to gain occupancy insights. They install sensors and cameras everywhere to extract information from the built environment. However, that solution is expensive.

A new idea

But what if we could provide data collection and analysis as an automated service?

What can we do to quickly assess the built environment and take measurements of the quality of the air, the temperature, the noise levels—even occupancy and light levels? What if employers could get a quick and accurate snapshot of all the essential environmental systems that make employees happier, healthier, and more productive? Could we offer that up affordably? Would that help our clients understand their spaces better?

A robot collects data

The answer is yes! With our partner GlobalDWS we have developed a robotic solution that can safely navigate a client’s workspace.

Outfitted with a variety of sensors, the IAQ Robot takes readings for indoor air quality, temperature, humidity, pressure, ambient light, noise levels, and more. These are all relevant data points required for measuring compliance with the WELL rating system.

The robot can count people and monitor their motion to better understand how spaces are being utilized throughout the day. It can also detect health and safety violations, such as blocked entryways or obstacles in hallways.

The IAQ Robot in action at Stantec’s Markham, Ontario, office. The robot takes readings for indoor air quality, temperature, humidity, pressure, ambient light, noise levels, and more.

How it works

Rather than send in a team to physically observe and record data, we ship the IAQ Robot directly to the site. The robot and its charging station are plug and play. Once charged up and deployed, the robot—in a Roomba-like fashion—follows a preset trajectory to collect data, returning to its charging station as needed, then repeating the process until it has the data it needs.

We can program the bot to ingest data 24 hours a day or only during working hours. It instantly sends collected data to the cloud, while our team can monitor and control the device remotely. After a week or two—the timeline for collecting the data via the bot is determined by the size of the floor and the required accuracy and resolution of data collection—we pick it up.

Robot sensors/360 floorplan

In addition to having more than 20 sensors, the robot features a high-definition 3D 360 camera. As the robot maneuvers, it creates a 3D model of the space, a point cloud that can be imported into BIM or a digital twin platform.

If a client’s floorplan is outdated or nonexistent, they will need new images of what’s there to verify how things have changed before they make any major decisions. With the IAQ Robot, we can provide a high-resolution detailed imagery of the entire space, even multiple floor plates, that we can use to redesign or retrofit the space.

By using the IAQ Robot, we develop a more complete understanding of the client’s space utilization, building system health, and occupant comfort.

Data control and security

This tool allows us to capture the data in our cloud. Rather than see the data stored with multiple third-party providers, we have 100 percent control over it.

We can manipulate the data, import it, and use it in BIM. It gives us greater ability to look at what solutions or what problems we can solve with our client. We’re less restricted in how we use the data, opening new opportunities to explore more holistic solutions, like our digital twin, or other services to support a client’s specific needs. And it’s all informed by data.

While scanning, the platform does not capture any personally identifiable data about employees or visitors. It secures the data through encryption and various access control measures. It retains the data only as long as needed for the task to reduce risk. And throughout, we employ data masking so no personally identifiable information is stored.

Making the data visible

The data we collect goes into a dashboard created with our partner, GlobalDWS, which allows us and our clients to see the state of their space. Our engineers can extract and analyze this data and give meaningful advice to our clients.

For example: “Your space is too hot here.” “This corner is rarely used or occupied. It could be better utilized.” “We’re detecting indoor pollutants in your office.”

Offer advice backed by data and standards

When we make our recommendations, we support them with the client’s real-time data. We can point to areas where air quality levels are poor, for example. We can look at how actual conditions match established standards and WELL Building 2.0.

Then, we can offer advice on what’s needed to address the issues. And as a result, we can make more meaningful and impactful improvements to the quality of space and well-being of people based on a specific set of unique data through targeted design and engineering solutions.

Sharing a clear view of existing conditions with the client, we can assess the next steps. The actions could be anything from a design or engineering systems retrofit to workplace strategy and change management sessions. Our clients benefit from the ability to see a wealth of unique data on their space that will inform important capital decisions like renovation or recommissioning of their systems. 

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The IAQ Robot helps our design team make more meaningful and impactful improvements to the quality of space and well-being of people.

If downsizing is required, the data can help them decide how to prioritize space needs. The difference is that those decisions don’t rely only on industry best practices, old benchmarking, and hunches. By using the IAQ Robot, we develop a more complete understanding of the client’s space utilization, building system health, and occupant comfort. IAQ Robot allows us to tailor a solution to a client’s actual conditions and needs all with the goal of helping them thrive in their workplaces.

What’s the robot doing today?

We recently tested the IAQ Robot in our own Markham, Ontario, office. Managers needed to obtain indoor air quality details without property owner involvement. They wanted a 3D as-built model for renovations. They wanted occupancy data but couldn’t add sensors or equipment to IT systems.

We deployed two Stantec IAQ robots for one week to scan the workplace for IAQ, light levels, temperature, and occupancy. The robot produced a detailed point cloud 3D model that we can analyze and import into BIM.

The result? Our office leaders have real-time occupancy data. They installed temperature alerts near windows to allow adjustments to improve comfort. And data confirmed that IAQ meets standards, reassuring operators and staff.

Our team is rolling out the IAQ Robot and working with clients on a pilot project. Soon the Stantec IAQ Robot will join the full stack end-to-end services we offer. IAQ allows us to bring an integrated approach and the best engineering and design consulting together with the latest in robotics and sensor technology. It’s a bold step forward in our quest to design the best workplaces.

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  • Rick Huijbregts

    Rick is a smart cities global lead who applies innovative methodologies to enhance sustainability in built environments. He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work in municipal innovation in Canada.

    Contact Rick
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