Occupancy sensors: Everything enterprise buyers need to know before buying

What is an occupancy sensor (OCC sensors)

An occupancy sensor is a device that checks if someone's in a space, like a room or hallway. For big companies, with places like large offices or retail stores, these sensors have been handy for saving energy and using space smartly.

But as we move into an era of AI, smart buildings and connected workspaces, these sensors might not be enough. Big businesses often need more detailed information than just knowing if a room is occupied. With everything changing so fast, they need deeper insights, and traditional sensors might not always cut it.

What does an occupancy sensor do?

At its essence, an occupancy sensor's task is to relay whether a space, perhaps a meeting room, a warehouse aisle, or a retail floor, is occupied at any given moment. In it’s early days, 1990s, such binary data (occupied/not occupied) was pivotal in automating numerous building systems. For instance, if a conference room's sensor does not detect any activity for a set duration, it can trigger the lights to turn off, contributing to energy savings.

For enterprises, the stakes are higher. Think about a global store chain: saving energy across all its stores can mean a lot of money. But they also have bigger questions: Which parts of the store do customers visit most? When is the store busiest? And how does the number of customers relate to sales?

What is an example of an occupancy sensor?

A common example many people know is the infrared sensors we see in many offices or shops. They're often on the ceiling, and they adjust things like lights based on movement.

But here’s the limitation for enterprises: these sensors can tell if someone walks into a room, but they fall short in providing granular insights.

For a global enterprise, understanding the flow of employees in an office or tracking the dwell time of customers in specific retail zones could be invaluable data points. That kind of detailed information is hard to get with just traditional sensors.

When and where are occupancy sensors required?

Occupancy sensors are never required, yet many enterprises adopted sensors to tap into data for boosting in-person experiences and refining operations.

Common applications: 

  • Energy conservation in office buildings: Lights and HVAC systems activate based on presence, aligning with green goals.
  • Security in parking garages: Movement-based illumination ensures safety.
  • Traffic flow in public transport hubs: Monitoring crowd patterns aids in both safety and efficiency.

Yet, as the digital realm evolved, so did customer expectations. A seamless in-person experience, much like their online interactions, became the norm. Businesses had to step up. With AI's emergence, the horizon of possibilities expanded.

AI solutions, capable of turning every observed moment into actionable data, started setting new benchmarks. When measured against these AI innovations, outdated occupancy sensors exhibit clear shortcomings.

Limitations of occupancy sensors in the era of AI:

  • Binary data: They just offer 'occupied or not' data, lacking depth.
  • Missed opportunities: They can overlook stationary occupants.
  • Placement dependency: Their efficiency hinges on precise placement and specific types.
  • Surface-level insights: Even when bolstered by features like dashboards, the data remains superficial.

In this age where AI captures, understands, and reacts to every subtlety, the continued use of outdated occupancy sensors is up for debate.

Timeline illustration of How AI is making occupancy sensor outdated like cloud technology did for flappy disc
How AI is making occupancy sensor outdated like cloud technology did for floppy disc

What are the three types of occupant detection system sensors?

Enterprises looking into occupancy detection might come across three main types:

  1. Passive Infrared (PIR) sensors: Spot body heat from moving individuals, suitable for areas with regular movement.
  2. Ultrasonic sensors: Using ultrasonic waves, they measure reflections off moving objects—best for spaces with less predictable movement.
  3. Microwave sensors: These rely on microwave pulses to detect activity. Though efficient, their binary data output feels limited, especially when AI can capture and process every visual detail.

What's the difference between a motion sensor and an occupancy sensor?

In the context of businesses, motion sensors detect movement, often for security. Occupancy sensors ascertain if an area is occupied, mostly for utilities.

However, in today's data-driven world, this binary understanding of "occupied/moved" or "not" falls short. AI-driven solutions offer depth, capturing not just presence but also patterns, behaviors, and more.

How do vacancy sensors differ from occupancy sensors?

Both are about human presence. Vacancy sensors ensure an area is empty, turning off utilities. Occupancy sensors activate utilities as people come in.

Yet, in the age of AI, their once groundbreaking binary feedback is now basic. Modern enterprises are eyeing richer, AI-processed data to optimize spaces and enhance in-person experiences.

Are occupancy sensors cameras?

No, occupancy sensors are not cameras. They use waves to detect presence without capturing detailed visuals, while some might integrate camera features for more detailed analysis. However, existing security cameras can now be transformed into smart AI agents, capable of a myriad of tasks.

What AI can do:

  • Retail: Imagine a virtual store manager, always on duty. It dynamically dispatches staff where they're most needed, spotting unattended customers, spills, or potential cart pushout theft scenarios. It can even alert low on-shelf availability or prevent long queues at the checkout.
  • Airport: Think of an ever-present virtual terminal operations manager. It oversees check-in, security, and immigration queues, offering real-time insights on wait times and proactively working to prevent long queues from forming. This AI guide can even share wait time estimates with passengers, allowing them to plan their journey better and reducing travel stress.
  • Transit: Picture an AI sentinel that's always alert. AI ensures operations are optimized by continuously monitoring restricted areas for trespassing, identifying patterns like homeless individuals resting on platforms, and meticulously capturing trends such as passenger counts per car or tracking the frequency of bicycles and wheelchairs. These insights drive informed decision-making for investments.
  • CRE (Commercial Real Estate): Visualize an intelligent property overseer. It's not just about keeping spaces secure; it's about streamlining space usage, enhancing tenant well-being, and even predicting when maintenance might be required.

In this evolving landscape, AI-powered solutions are quickly overshadowing basic tools like occupancy sensors, redefining how enterprises interact with their physical spaces.

Visual representation of AI virtual manager alerts of spill detection and low OSAs
What AI can do that occupancy sensor cannot

Are occupancy sensors worth it?

How accurate is occupancy sensor?

The accuracy of occupancy sensors can vary based on several factors. High-end models might boast over 90% accuracy, but these often come with a significant cost, sometimes even exceeding $1000. Despite the investment, these sensors still comes with technical limitations.

Accuracy limitations of occupancy sensor

  • Detection blind spots: No sensor has a 360-degree field of view. This means that corners, behind objects, or areas with obstructions can be missed. For expansive enterprise spaces like retail superstores, these blind spots can result in significant areas left unmonitored. It’s why most retailers only know the number of people in and out of the stores and are left blind with what happens inside.
  • Restricted sensing range: While they may detect presence within a specific radius, the range isn't infinite. For instance, if a warehouse aisle, or a passenger terminal stretches beyond 30 feet, the sensor might only capture activity in its immediate vicinity, leaving the rest unnoticed.
  • Sensitivity to external factors: Factors like abrupt temperature changes, steam, or even dense fog can affect a sensor's accuracy. Imagine an industrial setting with machinery emitting heat or a retail store’s lighting to highlight products; these conditions can inadvertently trigger or hinder detections, affecting the sensors’ readings.

For modern enterprises, consistency and reliability aren't just preferable – they're essential. In a landscape where every decision impacts efficiency and the bottom line, investments in technology must guarantee dependable results. Read how Toronto Pearson's summer queue chaos became 'fantastic, fabulous, awesome' with 95.8% accuracy on wait time data, not just a simple passenger count.

How far do occupancy sensors reach?

The range varies. While PIR sensors might cover areas of 15-20 feet effectively, microwave sensors can have a broader range, up to 30 feet or more. But think about the vast expanse of a airport terminal, the sprawling layout of modern corporate offices, or a retail department store.

Consider the total CAPEX required to cover the entire space when it costs $1,000 per 20 square feet. Does this range truly cater to an enterprise's expansive needs and provide enough value for its cost?

Where do you put an occupancy sensor?

Correct placement is crucial. For instance:

  • PIR sensors usually go on ceilings to capture body heat movements.
  • Ultrasonic and microwave sensors might sit on walls or tucked into corners to scan a wider area.

For large-scale enterprises, this often requires a significant infrastructure and environment overhaul. Setting sensors up might mean rerouting cables, rigorously planning placements to dodge interferences, and temporarily shutting down areas for constructions. Consider the impact of these disruptions in your business operations.

Enterprises have to wonder: Given the rapid advancements in AI and more comprehensive solutions available, is the logistical and financial investment in these "older-gen" sensors truly worth it?

Illustration of a construction site to install occupancy sensor
Construction site to install occupancy sensor

How many occupancy sensors do I need?

The requirement is dictated by the space in question and the type and range of the sensor. For expansive environments such as conference halls or large office floors, achieving comprehensive coverage may necessitate multiple sensors.

This not only escalates costs but also introduces complexities in installation and management. In stark contrast, a single existing security camera, enhanced with AI capabilities, can effectively monitor larger areas, offering detailed insights beyond mere occupancy.

How to set an occupancy sensor?

Configuration typically includes adjusting sensitivity levels, setting timers, and calibrating to minimize false activations. While this ensures the sensor performs as intended, it's often a delicate balance – too sensitive, and it might trigger unnecessarily; too lax, and it may miss activity.

Further complicating the process is that most sensor solution providers mandate the involvement of their specialized technicians for setup. These technicians, due to high demand, are often fully booked, leading enterprises to face prolonged wait times – sometimes even weeks – just to get an appointment scheduled.

In contrast, AI solutions can be deployed remotely to existing security cameras. They self-adapt, learning from continuous data streams, and adjust their algorithms for optimized performance.

How to turn off an occupancy sensor?

While some sensors offer a straightforward manual override, others have a more intricate deactivation process. But for expansive enterprises with numerous sensors scattered across multiple locations, manual shutdowns aren't just impractical—they're nearly impossible.

This challenge becomes especially pronounced when a sensor delivers inaccurate data. For instance, consider an airport relaying incorrect wait-time predictions to passengers based on faulty sensor input. Not only do travelers face the frustration of unexpected long waits, but their trust is eroded when the projected and actual times don't align.

How long do occupancy sensors stay on?

They usually remain active as movement is detected. Once movement ceases, a predefined timer starts, leading to eventual deactivation. But in dynamic enterprise environments, isn't a system that adapts to real-time conditions rather than predefined timers more appropriate?

How long do occupancy sensors last?

With regular upkeep, many sensors claim longevity over several years. However, their efficiency might wane as time progresses. As enterprises strategize for the future, the need for reliable, long-lasting solutions becomes paramount.

How do you detect occupancy

How do you monitor room occupancy

Traditional methods involved relying on occupancy sensors to detect presence based on motion or thermal detection. But now, AI-powered solutions offer a more comprehensive approach.

By analyzing video feeds from existing security cameras, AI can accurately count individuals, differentiate between staff and visitors, or even detect patterns of movement and dwell times.

How do you track store occupancy?

Retail environments pose unique challenges. Store layouts with numerous aisles, display stands, and frequent customer movement demand an evolved solution. While occupancy sensors could provide a rough count of in-and-out traffic, AI dives deeper.

AI can track customer journeys, identify high-traffic zones, gauge product interest based on dwell times, and even assess queue lengths in real-time, helping managers make immediate staffing or layout adjustments.

How do you track terminal occupancy?

Transit terminals, whether for trains, buses, or airplanes, are large, dynamic environments. Simple motion detection is woefully insufficient here.

With AI, not only can you get an accurate count of passengers, but you can also monitor queue lengths in a dynamic environment across check-ins, security, or boarding gates. AI offers predictive insights, anticipating rush hours or lulls, enabling optimal staff deployment.

What is the best occupancy detector?

Infographic - A full comparison between occupancy sensor and AI
A full comparison between occupancy sensor and AI

In the ever-evolving world of technology, comparing the now-outdated occupancy sensors with the sophisticated prowess of AI-powered analytics gives a clear direction for the future of occupancy detection.

Occupancy sensors:

  • Pros: Basic and uncomplicated operation, can be functional for smaller, rudimentary spaces, some models even boast over 90% accuracy.
  • Cons: Confined range and capability, susceptible to inaccuracies due to environmental disturbances, inherent blind spots, generally limited to simple in/out tallies.

AI-powered analytics:

  • Pros: Exceptional accuracy, scalability tailored for vast and multifaceted venues, provides intricate insights beyond just headcounts – delving into traffic flows, dwell times, and more. Significantly, it adapts and hones its accuracy over time. Another major advantage is its ability to seamlessly integrate with existing camera systems, requiring minimal infrastructural changes and enabling swift, remote deployment.
  • Cons: Some stakeholders may perceive its detailed analytics as potentially invasive due to the granularity of data gathered.

Verdict: For enterprises that aim to stay ahead in a competitive landscape, AI-powered analytics undeniably eclipses the capabilities of older occupancy sensors. While these sensors may have applications in more basic settings, spaces with diverse and dynamic demands will unmistakably benefit from the comprehensive insights and adaptability that AI introduces.

Interested in buying AI solution for your enterprise's needs? Read this buying guide written by Carnegie Mellon AI experts. Or simply talk to our AI experts.

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October 12, 2023
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