Microsoft paves digital twins’ on-ramp for construction, real estate

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Digital twins for the smart building of the future are still under construction. But Microsoft is working to enable this advanced technology with a special ontology that works with its internet of things (IoT) platform Azure Digital Twins. Such capabilities move smart buildings closer to reality.

An ontology is essentially a shared data model that simplifies the process of connecting applications in a particular domain, and it’s one of the core elements for developing digital twins.

“Microsoft is investing heavily in enabling our partners with the technology and services they need to create digital twin solutions that support new and existing needs of the world’s largest real estate portfolios,” said Microsoft Azure IoT general manager Tony Shakib.

This recent push into construction extends the utility of Microsoft’s Azure Digital Twins, released last year.

To gain a foothold in the field, Microsoft partnered with RealEstateCore, a Swedish consortium of real estate owners, tech companies, and research groups, to integrate these services with various industry standards. Making a Smart Building RealEstateCore ontology for Azure Digital Twins enables the various parties in building markets — owners, construction teams, and vendors — to collaborate and communicate about real estate.

This could accelerate the ability to weave IoT data, AI models, and analytics into digital twins, and to help simplify the transition to sustainable and green innovation, currently one of one of the fastest-growing venture capital sectors.

Accelerating digital transformation

Digital transformation has been slow to develop in construction and real estate markets. Microsoft believes that the development of better standards and integrations could help accelerate such transformation. That is important if only because real estate represents one of the largest asset classes in the world. In its recent Global Building Stock Database update, Guidehouse Insights predicts the square footage of buildings will grow from about 166 billion square meters in 2020 to 196 billion square meters in 2030.

Building owners are hoping that digital twins could help increase the value of their existing holdings at less cost than building new ones.

But figuring out how to increase building asset value and net operating income is a complicated problem that spans technology and change management issues, Shakib said.

This shift is further complicated by challenges in retrofitting digital twins’ capabilities to existing building management systems. Shakib said many building management and automation vendors have attempted to limit buildings to custom, proprietary “walled garden” approaches that can hurt clients in the long run.

Better ontologies could smooth this transition. Such thinking was behind the RealEstateCore Consortium, which was born out of a partnership between academia and industry. The consortium created the RealEstateCore ontology that employed a graph data model and built on years of best practices gleaned from experience with larger property owners such as Vasakronan.

RealEstateCore can provide a bridge to various building industry standards such as Brick Schema, Project Haystack, W3C Building Topology Ontology (W3C BOT), and more. Today, different partners can run into problems integrating applications using custom data formats. This is especially relevant in construction, as there are huge pitfalls from data loss in the steps from building design to construction, commission, handover, and operation.

Seeing a return

Improved digital twins promise significant ROI for building owners and operators. By improving the categorization, integration, and fidelity of data, digital twin developers can create better digital replicas of physical buildings and the components they comprise.

Some of the early gains come from cost savings related to energy efficiency. Microsoft has been exploring these techniques on its campuses to realize 20% to 30% energy savings. These projects can start by harvesting data from existing building control systems to find room for improvement.

Microsoft’s Project Bonsai has been able to squeeze an additional 10% to 15% of savings by applying AI to optimize controls further. Down the road, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings could help owners save even more by enabling their facilities to interact with the digital electric grid in real time.

Beyond energy savings, there has been rapidly growing interest in using digital twins to optimize building space, activate building amenities, and support various health and wellness scenarios in the wake of COVID. For example, RXR Realty uses Azure Digital Twins to combine building data with people counting, social distance detection, face mask detection, and air quality monitoring to provide a building wellness index. The appropriate ontology also allowed them to capture important metrics while still respecting privacy and ethics.

Turning things into assets

Digital twins help a group of people make sense of the data surfaced by IoT devices. An ontology provides a set of models for wiring these up in a particular domain, such as a building structure, system, city, or energy grid.

An ontology can provide a starting point for organizing the information to solve a problem that spans different roles, such as designers, builders, vendors, and operators. For example, a construction team might need to know how to install a new heater; a general contractor would want to know how long installing it will take, while the owner would want to know the appropriate maintenance schedule.

The built world is complex, and a smart building’s ontology must seek to represent that intricate reality in a way that is simple for developers to use. “An ontology must balance power and comprehensiveness with simplicity and ease of use to generate enough adoption,” Shakib said.

All of the major cloud vendors have announced various kinds of IoT initiatives for helping to weave sensors and actuators into new cloud applications. But Microsoft has been the only one to champion digital twins thus far. The real value of digital twins lies in helping decision-makers frame how their decisions about these IoT-related applications can be woven together to impact assets in the real world.

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