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SU engineering professors to use $1.4M grant to improve building energy modeling

By Eric Reinhardt

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Edward Bogucz (left), associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Senem Velipasalar, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, of Syracuse University are part of a group that will use a $1.4 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a system that improves energy modeling of existing buildings using information gathered by drones. (PHOTO CREDIT: SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY NEWS WEBSITE)

SYRACUSE — Two faculty members in Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) will work to develop a 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), Syracuse University announced in mid-November.

“People across the country applied to get funding from that program,” says Bogucz. “It was thrilling to be on a team that was successful in making an application and getting that award.”

The DOE funding will support a three-year project called “Aerial Intelligence for Retrofit Building Energy Modeling (AirBEM).” 

“It’s meant to reduce the cost of getting accurate assessments of building-energy efficiency to help building owners identify opportunities to improve energy efficiency,” says Bogucz, who spoke with CNYBJ on Dec. 3.

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.

“And then to quickly and accurately predict how much energy can be saved if various improvements would be made. If there would be new insulation, or new windows and doors, whatever the measures might be to improve the energy efficiency of the building,” he adds.

Idea development

The concept for AirBEM originated at Syracuse University with initial seed funding from the Syracuse Center of Excellence (SyracuseCoE), the school said. Subsequently, AirBEM collaborators developed the concept using additional funding awards from sources that include 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.

Bogucz will assist with efforts to commercialize the technology. At the outset, he will help the researchers communicate with potential users of the product when it’s done. 

“These are firms that are providing assistance to building owners in evaluating their energy efficiencies,” says Bogucz. “We’ll engage those companies early in the project so that they can advise on what would be most helpful to them.”

As the project develops new tools, the companies will be engaged in evaluating those tools. And “ideally,” at the end of the three-year project, he says, the companies would be in a position to adopt the new technology in the services that they’re providing.

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. 

Aging buildings

More than half of all U.S. commercial buildings were built before 1970 and are “inefficient” relative to newer buildings, Syracuse University said. 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. 

The programs use 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 percent of energy loads in buildings, but collecting detailed and actionable information about them is “challenging,” Syracuse said. 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 school added.        

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