Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

Microsoft previews Azure Digital Twins

Steve Rogerson
September 27, 2018



At this week’s Ignite conference in Orlando, Microsoft announced the public preview of Azure Digital Twins to create digital replicas of spaces and infrastructure using cloud, AI and the IoT.
 
“For years now, our partners and customers have been using the Azure IoT platform to create breakthrough applications for a wide variety of industries,” said Bert Van Hoof, partner group programme manager for Azure IoT. “Along this journey, we’ve learned that most digital transformation efforts benefit from context about the physical world. As a result, organisations are showing a growing appetite for solutions that provide a deeper understanding of the sophisticated interactions between people, places and things.”
 
Enter the concept of the digital twin, a virtual representation of a physical environment that brings in data from a variety of sources. Historically, digital twins have been used for industrial equipment – machines, fleets of machines, engines and the like – but the concept of a digital twin is also broadly applicable to modelling all the ways people live and work in the physical environment.
 
Modelling the complex interactions and high-value intersections between people, places and things is unlocking opportunities, creating efficiencies, and improving public and private spaces.
 
“This is the context for a new service we’re adding to our IoT platform,” said Van Hoof.
 
Azure Digital Twins is a platform for comprehensive digital models and spatially aware services that can be applied to any physical environment. Users can query data in the context of a space rather than from disparate sensors empowering them to build repeatable, scalable experiences that correlate data from digital sources and the physical world.
 
Azure Digital Twins has been developed as part of the Azure IoT platform to provide the scale, reliability, compliance, security and privacy benefits of Microsoft Azure. It means environments of all types – offices, schools, hospitals, banks, stadiums, warehouses, factories, car parks, streets, intersections, parks, plazas and more – can become smarter spaces, and so can the supporting infrastructure and even entire cities.
 
“Most IoT projects today start from a things-centric approach, but we’ve flipped that around,” said Van Hoof. “We’ve found that customers realise huge benefits by first modelling the physical environment and then connecting existing or new devices to that model. Customers gain new spatial intelligence capabilities and new insights into how spaces and infrastructure are really used.”
 
Privacy and security controls are an integral part of the Azure IoT platform. Once a digital model is in place, Azure Digital Twins uses Azure IoT Hub to connect the IoT devices and sensors that keep everything up to date with the physical world.
 
“Azure Digital Twins will help customers build next-generation IoT solutions that go beyond just connecting devices – predicting maintenance needs, analysing energy requirements, optimising the use of available space, creating more efficient processes and more,” said Van Hoof.
 
Here’s a summary of the platform’s capabilities:

  • Spatial intelligence graph. This is an actual virtual representation of a physical environment that models the relationships among people, places and devices. This digital twin generates insights that allow organisations to improve energy efficiency, space use, occupant experience and more. This includes blob storage – the ability to attach and store maps, documents, manuals, pictures and so on as metadata to the spaces, people and devices represented in the graph.
  • Twin object models. The service also offers pre-defined schema and device protocols that align to domain-specific needs to accelerate and simplify their creation. These benefits can apply to any interior or exterior space, as well as to infrastructure or even entire cities.
  • Advanced compute capabilities. Users can define functions that generate notifications or events based on telemetry from devices and sensors. This capability can be applied in various powerful ways. For example, in a conference room when a presentation is started in PowerPoint, the environment could automatically dim the lights and lower the blinds. After the meeting, when everyone has left, the lights are turned off and the air conditioning is lowered.
  • Data isolation via multi- and nested-tenancy capabilities. Users can build services that scale and securely replicate across multiple tenants and sub-tenants by leveraging built-in multi- and nested-tenancy capabilities to ensure data are isolated.
  • Security through access control and Azure Active Directory (AAD). Role-based access control and AAD serve as automated gatekeepers for people or devices, specifying what actions are allowed, and helping to ensure security, data privacy and compliance.
  • Integration with Microsoft services. Users and partners can build out their offering by connecting Azure Digital Twins to the broader set of Azure analytics, AI and storage services, as well as Azure Maps, Azure High-Performance Computing, Microsoft Mixed Reality, Dynamics 365 and Office 365.
“Combined, these capabilities enable our partners to focus on driving results for their end customers by delivering advanced relational modelling while also addressing critical needs for privacy, security and the ability to scale globally,” said Van Hoof.
 
Azure Digital Twins is already being used by a broad set of users from a wide range of industries. For example, Digital Twins can be used across the life cycle of a building, leveraging data that were formerly lost or siloed between stages of design, construction, ownership, and occupancy. Willow, an Australian technology company, is addressing this need by creating a category of innovation for the built environment.
 
Willow Twin provides a digital replica of the physical world that is simple and intuitive. It uses Azure Digital Twins’s cloud, AI and IoT capabilities to model a building, track real-time data and connect devices. Azure Digital Twins enables Willow to store the hierarchy and building data while feeding in details from other systems – architectural designs, warranties, manuals – providing one place to view all aspects of a building. Drawing on all this historical and live data, Willow Twin creates actionable insights that can transform the operation of buildings and infrastructure and how people experience those assets.
 
Willow and Microsoft are helping Thyssenkrupp Elevator unlock the vast data created in the central nervous system of its new test tower. The objective is to create new ways to manage maintenance contracts and security, develop personalised experiences for tourists, and ensure elevators are always functioning.
 
If the test tower has a service issue, such as a water pump that stops operating properly, service technicians can use an app to view a 3D model of the building. They can roam around the model, enlarging or rotating as needed to locate a digital representation of the pump, and then access the unit’s specifications, operating history, maintenance records and service manual to identify the issue and speed up repairs.
 
Willow plans to take Azure Digital Twins to users in many sectors such as commercial and office buildings, industrial spaces, multifamily developments, rail and infrastructure, airports, hotels, and data centres.
 
The smart buildings industry focuses on enhancing operations and energy savings. Iconics was Microsoft’s  first building energy partner to adopt the Azure Digital Twins platform, taking advantage of the platform’s pre-defined data schemas and computing capabilities. Iconics pulls telemetry from equipment and facilities, uncovering insights that can help reduce operating costs and improve tenant satisfaction.
 
With Azure Digital Twins, users can connect into other Microsoft offerings and the partner ecosystem. For example, MacDonald-Miller, a Seattle-based facility company, uses Azure IoT services, Dynamics 365 for Field Service and Iconics smart building software to dispatch service techs. They arrive with the right information, tools and parts needed to make a first-time fix if a building’s system is using too much energy.
 
Opportunities for building efficiency extend beyond energy savings, and space optimisation is another big focus for organisations worldwide. Steelcase, a company with a 106-year history of designing for workspaces, is providing ways that get more out of spaces.
 
Steelcase has used Azure Digital Twins to build its Workplace Advisor and the Find mobile app. Workplace Advisor helps organisations see how their space is being used and create workplaces that respond to the needs of the people in them. For example, Steelcase worked with a growing company that was pinched for space and found that the use rate across its workplace was just 35 per cent. Using data and analytics to reconfigure the space, it was able to increase the use to 51 per cent in a short period of time.
 
The Azure Digital Twins platform is also being used to create better experiences for building occupants. CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm, built its CBRE 360 employee- and tenant-experience platform leveraging Azure Digital Twins for analysis, to see how the space it manages is used and optimise it to serve people’s needs better.
 
With sensors to measure temperature, motion and other conditions, CBRE can help clients understand their spaces and provide experiences to the people working there. The CBRE 360 mobile app lets users navigate the workplace, set up meetings with colleagues, reserve workspaces, and access food and beverage, building and concierge services.
 
Together with Rigado, a provider of commercial IoT edge-as-a-service products, CBRE and Microsoft are rolling out these services at CBRE’s most advanced buildings.
 
Also working on occupant experiences is Winvision, the Dutch technology partner of BeSense. It uses Azure Digital Twins with Office 365 for occupancy and room-booking scenarios in workplaces.
 
Azure Digital Twins can be used outside of these diverse spaces in many different applications as well, including parking, exterior lighting and electric vehicle charging.
 
Allego, a provider of charging and EV cloud services, tapped Azure Digital Twins to help build a seamless charging experience for cities, companies and consumers across its European network of almost 9500 charge points.
 
It needed to incorporate the complex user preferences and energy-grid constraints associated with EV charging into a dynamic model. The goal: come up with the best charging schedule for plugged-in electric vehicles. The Digital Twins platform let it model and optimise charging scenarios, resulting in flexible, reliable and predictable charging options for its customers. The system can even help grid operators reduce or avoid costly infrastructure upgrades.
 
Beyond EV charging, for example, Azure Digital Twins provides potential use cases for utilities and infrastructure. Adger Energi, a Norwegian electric utility, is using Azure Digital Twins to identify ways to operate its electrical grid more efficiently through distributed energy resources, device controls and predictive forecasting, thus avoiding costly and time-consuming energy upgrades.
 
The possibilities for Digital Twins also extend beyond buildings and into models of campuses and cities. L&T Technology Services (LTTS) built a comprehensive service for smart campus and smart city applications. It provides a virtual representation of an entire connected campus and its building infrastructure, providing AI-led facility fault detection, diagnosis and reporting, as well as real-time feedback and resolution loops for facility managers, campus security and mission-critical facilities.
 
LTTS i-BEMS integrates Azure Digital Twins and Dynamics 365 for Field Service to provide real-time automated IoT alerts, ticketing and resolution management with little human intervention, accelerating the time to resolution. LTTS i-BEMS Digital Twin dashboards optimise building energy management, space utilisation, workplace configuration and tenant experience management.
 
In spring, Microsoft announced that it was investing $5bn in IoT over the next four years. Its goal is to simplify the journey in IoT so any customer, no matter where they’re starting from, can create trusted, connections for digital transformation.
 
“Azure Digital Twins offers a powerful example of how Microsoft continues to deliver on this commitment,” said Van Hoof. “By removing layers of complexity and accelerating the creation of innovative spatial intelligence, Azure Digital Twins provides organisations with the foundation they need to create the next wave of innovation in IoT. And that means a more intelligent and connected world that empowers people and organisations to achieve more.”
 
Azure Digital Twins will be publicly available for users to begin building products on October 15th.