Engineering and Computer Science Faculty to Advance ‘Aerial Intelligence’ for Building Energy Modeling Supported by $1.4 Million Award from the U.S. Department of Energy

 Engineering and Computer Science Faculty to Advance ‘Aerial Intelligence’ for Building Energy

November 14, 2019

Two faculty members in Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) will extend their collaborations to develop an innovative system that improves energy modeling of existing buildings using “aerial intelligence” acquired by drones. Senem Velipasalar, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and Edward Bogucz, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, are members of a team that recently was awarded $1.4 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The DOE funding will support a three-year project called “Aerial Intelligence for Retrofit Building Energy Modeling (AirBEM).” AirBEM will complement human auditing of building interiors with the use of drones equipped with infrared sensors and onboard processors to audit the exterior envelope. The drones will use computer vision algorithms to detect both materials and heat transfer anomalies which suggest construction defects such as air leaks.

The concept for AirBEM originated at Syracuse University with initial seed funding from SyracuseCoE.  Subsequently, AirBEM collaborators developed the concept using additional support awarded by multiple sources, including ECS and the Office of Research, the Campus as a Laboratory for Sustainability program, the University College Innovative Program Development Fund (iFund), and the Collaboration for Unprecedented Success and Excellence (CUSE) grant program.

Tarek Rakha, assistant professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is the Principal Investigator for the new DOE project. Previously, Rakha was a faculty member in Syracuse University’s School of Architecture and a SyracuseCoE Faculty Fellow. Velipasalar will lead the research tasks that will be conducted at Syracuse University for the project. Bogucz will assist with efforts to commercialize the technology.

More than half of all U.S. commercial buildings were built before 1970 and are inefficient relative to newer buildings. To address the inefficiency of this older stock, retrofit programs rely on on-site auditing to collect information about buildings’ envelope, lighting, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems on physics-based, whole-building energy modeling to identify and diagnose specific inefficiencies in these systems and to design and optimize energy-efficiency measure packages that address them.

Envelopes and windows account for over 50% of energy loads in buildings, but collecting detailed and actionable information about them is challenging. A primary challenge is the difficulty in accessing building exteriors above the first or second story. Using humans to perform this inspection is time-consuming, costly, dangerous, and error prone.

“The aspiration for this work is to profoundly inform building retrofit design by radically enhancing the methods and modes of envelope audits,” said Rakha. “We want to allow auditors to move past a small number of single-frame images for inspection; we want to enable retrofits to address specific building envelope issues, and want to develop 3D models that designers can interact with when developing retrofit plans.”

“My students and I are excited by this opportunity to develop new computer vision algorithms and interpret thermal images for this challenging application,” said Velipasalar. “We look forward to continuing to advance ideas that we developed thanks to early support from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Office of Research, the Campus as a Laboratory for Sustainability Program, and the iFund and CUSE grant programs.”

“AirBEM promises to be a valuable asset for accelerating the market for energy-efficiency retrofits of buildings in New York State, across the country, and around the world,” said Bogucz. “I look forward to helping the AirBEM team engage innovative companies that are prospective early adopters of the new system.”