Cloud Services / IoT Edge Computing / Contributed

The Digital Feedback Loop Powering Next Generation Businesses

11 Feb 2019 6:00am, by
Sam George
Sam George is the Director of Microsoft Azure IoT Engineering Team on the Program Management side, delivering a broad portfolio of features and capabilities that help our customers and partners realize the full potential of the Internet of Things. He is responsible for Microsoft IoT Central, Azure IoT Suite, Azure IoT Edge, Azure IoT Hub, Azure IoT Device Provisioning Service, our IoT Device SDK, the Microsoft Connected Vehicle Platform and more. An accomplished industry leader, Sam’s contributions during his 18-year tenure at Microsoft include impact on a number of technologies including video, smartphone, PC and cloud services. You can follow Sam online on his IoT Blog or at @samjgeorge.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is already providing immense benefits to businesses, from predictive and proactive maintenance of equipment, to optimizing processes like manufacturing, to providing detailed and timely insights from environments, just to name a few. When you look at the thousands of new use cases IoT enables they all have a very common pattern: devices are deployed to monitor and control something important. Cloud data and analytics provide insights about what’s being monitored in the real world and these insights enable you to take informed and timely action.  We like to say the three atoms of the IoT molecule are things, insights and actions.

What’s interesting about IoT is that this “things, insights, actions” approach isn’t a one-time static approach, it’s a dynamic one. The initial insights that businesses gain from IoT leads to better products, assets and processes, which in turn leads to new insights and new informed actions. We refer to this continuous improvement cycle as the digital feedback loop and it quickly turns into a competitive advantage.

So where is all of this going? We see a world in the not-too-distant future where every business is powered by these digital feedback loops and it becomes a normal part of doing business. Companies that aren’t powered by digital feedback loops will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. At Microsoft, we’re here to help democratize IoT and ensure that all businesses big and small can benefit. To that end, there are some very important emerging trends that will accelerate this.

Digital Twins Will Provide New Ways to Harness the Digital Feedback Loop

Conceptually, a digital twin is a digital replica of a physical object. This concept and technology have been mostly understood and developed in the context of manufacturing, creating digital twins of industrial equipment. IoT is highly relevant because the digital feedback loop enables the digital twin of something to be always up to date with the real object.

But as we look to the future, we think it will be important to expand this concept to include any physical environment including the devices, spaces and people interacting with them and, most importantly, the relationship between all of them. This provides a more natural way to model and manage all of the rich digital feedback loops businesses will rely on.

We think this is so important we built Azure Digital Twins for this very need. Headsets for Mixed Reality experiences will further blend the physical and digital worlds, to visualize the digital twins data in interactive ways. These replicas, with the help of Mixed Reality, can enable people at the front lines of the factory floor, a warehouse or remote worksite troubleshoot with remote support, sharing the same digital visual for real-time collaboration.

The digital twin approach can be applied to any domain.  As an example, consider workspaces: today, work real estate is a premium, particularly in urban areas. With more flexible work schedules, this prime real estate can go unused if it doesn’t suit the needs of the people who work there. Digital twins of workspaces can tell you how often rooms are being used to better plan workspace — for example, creating individual phone rooms rather than one large conference room.

Edge Computing Distributes Cloud Intelligence

As these digital feedback loops and the devices that power them proliferate, it’s very natural to distribute work from central, cloud-based solutions to the devices themselves. We refer to this as edge computing. Edge computing is critical in scenarios where connectivity may not be reliable, or latency in the feedback loop cannot be afforded.

Consider the factory floor, which has expensive equipment that needs to be carefully maintained and managed. Smart sensors on this equipment can help a business understand the status 24/7 by sensing telemetry such as vibration and temperature and using it to detect problems. The detection of problems is typically done in the cloud by AI models that correlate this telemetry with problems. Edge computing enables customers to distribute these AI models right down to the factory floor, which provides constant monitoring even in the case of a local network outage. We think this approach to building solutions represents the next wave of computing, which is why Microsoft is focused on enabling an Intelligent Cloud and an Intelligent Edge.

5G Connectivity Powers Next Generation Digital Feedback Loops

This year we will see a new crop of devices powered by 5G. Whereas previous generations of wireless devices were primarily mobile devices like smartphones, watches and tablets, 5G is a true leap forward in terms of connectivity capabilities promising speeds 10x faster than 4G and support for a larger variety of devices. This will provide a significant opportunity for edge devices in the digital feedback loop to take advantage of processing high volumes of data at much faster speeds. We expect to see 5G accelerate this new wave of computing by supporting the proliferation of IoT and Edge devices involved in these digital feedback loops and connecting moving devices like drones, as well as remote devices in smart agriculture.

The Year Ahead

We are in the midst of the next wave of computing which is being empowered with these new technologies. We can expect to see greater adoption of these technologies in 2019 to accelerate time from insights to action in the digital feedback loop. Autonomous vehicles (AVs), for example, will bring together all of these technologies. With the need to see and respond to the environment quickly, AVs require edge computing and will leverage 5G connectivity to improve safety and accuracy of trip planning. As the vehicles are on the road, they are constantly learning — taking in locational data, understanding the environment mapping and much more.

Digital twins of these vehicles will allow AV car manufacturers to remotely assist, assessing issues as they arise through the virtual model, and sending technicians to address the specific problem, rather than spending time troubleshooting. These innovations will not only optimize businesses, but they will also create new opportunities for business growth and innovation.

Feature image via Pixabay.