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As IoT continues to shape our lives in a world that is transforming – often in ways we don’t even realize – Pete Bernard from Microsoft takes listeners on a journey through the world of IoT thought leaders to explore their vision of the future and what IoT will do to shape it. 

Nov 30, 2020

In this episode of The IoT Unicorn Podcast, Remco Ploeg of Altius discusses the challenges and opportunities of creating carbon neutral homes powered by Azure.

Download Transcript Here


00:00 Pete:  Welcome to the IoT unicorn podcast. This is Pete Bernard from Microsoft. And this podcast is for anyone interested in the long-term technology trends in the IoT space and the journey from here to there. So let's get started. Thank you, Remco, I appreciate your time. Thanks for joining us here. So you're actually based in the Netherlands, and I'm here in Bellevue, Washington, and through the magic of... I'm actually using the Squadcast platform right now to connect and record this, but... Welcome to the IoT Unicorn.


00:16 Remco: Thank you, Pete, for having me.


00:18 Pete: Great, so you're based in the Netherlands, and I've been there a bunch of times. I used to go there actually, when I would go to Barcelona for NWC, there was always like a flight at the crack of dawn from Barcelona, and I would transfer in the Netherlands to get back to Seattle. And then one year, I kinda got smart and I said, you know, I'm gonna go to Amsterdam the night before, get a good night's sleep, and then I'll take the 10 AM Direct to Seattle. So I've spent a bunch of those kind of layover nights in Amsterdam, so it's an awesome, awesome place, but... Are you from there originally?


00:52 Remco: Yes, I'm from Rotterdam, so that's the other big city in the Netherlands so that's south of Amsterdam.


00:58 Pete: I see.


01:00 Remco: And I was a lot I think also on the same plane as yourself, so I had to do a lot... To Seattle with the direct flight in the morning. So... And also coming back with the flight early in the morning in Amsterdam again.


01:12 Pete: Yeah, yeah.


01:14 Remco: So I'm based at the moment in Utrecht, in the middle of the country.


01:18 Pete: Okay. So you've been at Altius for about a year or two, a couple of years?


01:25 Remco: Yeah, a little bit, a little bit more than a year. And the beginning of this year, there was an acquisition of Altius by Avanade...


01:34 Pete: Yes.


01:34 Remco: So, I'm joining formally Avanade from the first of January, the coming year 2021. But already, I think for 6 months, I'm working side by side with my Avanade colleagues.


01:45 Pete: And so I know you've been... I know another thing, I did a little research is you were... Altius was named Microsoft's AI Partner of the Year, so that's a big deal. So tell me more about that. What is Altius in AI? What is the... Do you consider Altius an AI company or more of an IoT company that's using AI or how would you describe it?


02:08 Remco: Yeah, so if you look at Altius, we are at the moment, with 400 people in the UK, Netherlands, and India. We've got a full focus on data and AI, so that's also our focus. So IoT is more or less, no side-job but we saw that...


02:21 Pete: A means to an end.


02:23 Remco: A means to an end, exactly. And then started when I joined Altius so that's one and a half years ago with also combining AI with IoT, 'cause I think that that's a great combination that we have there.


02:36 Pete: Yeah, for sure. A lot of times that we've had folks from Qualcomm and other... More telecom-related, I think we had BT on here recently, and it was like the 5G plus AI plus IoT or pick your network that certainly becomes kind of a game-changer for what you can do with a little bit of data, over a large number of sensors or a lot of data... [02:58] ____.


02:58 Remco: I think, already at the moment, even without 5G, 5G is of course already rolling out, we can already do a lot with IoT.


03:11 Pete: Yeah, so actually interesting on that topic. You talk about IoT, so how much do you think with AI and IoT are you seeing on the Cloud versus the Edge, and how much experience are you getting now, are you seeing in a more of an emergence of Edge AI in addition to the cloud AI or what are you seeing there?


03:31 Remco: Yeah, that's a good question. I don't know, 10 years ago, we were moving everything to the clouds, but now we see some of our clouds going back again, so I do a lot of projects around connected buildings. I think that's a great example with Edge computing, is the amount of sensors, especially in new buildings and smart buildings, it's so enormous that moving every data point to the cloud, it's sometimes technical, not possible, and the second, it's too expensive.


04:00 Pete: Right.


04:01 Remco: So we see there are movement back putting Edge devices in the building itself again, and also doing AI on the Edge device itself because of course what you don't want to do in a building is controlling lights in the cloud, for example, you want to control locally, if the internet connection is out there you want to still put on your lights on. And since a couple of years, we are also doing AI on the Edge and AI on the cloud, of course already a little bit longer, and we are controlling, for example, Edge Tech Systems with AI depending on the expected usage of the building and certain conditions. We put certain settings into the building when running those... Yeah, AI is now on Edge device that help us and our clients a lot to control those devices.


04:54 Pete: Yeah, also I had understood talking to some other customers too about Edge AI, especially in AI Vision, it's something where you want to actually process locally, just from a privacy perspective too. I mean there's a transport, obviously, you can't keep streams of data going up into Azure and doing live video analytics, I guess you could and some people do, but for a lot of maybe smaller implementations or other implementations, you wanna kinda do things locally, act locally and then keep the data on-prem basically, right?


05:24 Remco: Yeah, exactly. So we felt also again the smart, to smart build solutions, things like security with cameras, where we can analyze the data off the camera, to see, okay, is somebody trying to breach into the building or do something else. And we all use Edge AI for it.


05:42 Pete: Right, yeah, yeah, that's fantastic. Tell me a little bit, I heard about some of the carbon-neutral housing efforts that you were doing, so tell me more about that. That sounds intriguing.


05:54 Remco: Yeah. So for one of our clients in the Netherlands, it's a company called TBI, and it's a local company with around six or seven [06:02] ____, and one of their main goals is to be the most sustainable builder in the Netherlands, and for that they are building carbon-neutral houses. So that means that the houses are totally carbon-neutral from a building perspective, but also from a usage perspective. So the people that are going to live in that home, on normal conditions, don't need to pay any energy bill every year, so they are really zero... We call it zero-net houses in the Netherlands but carbon-neutral is a better naming for that.


06:35 Pete: So, they're generating power on-site as well, so they're generating their own power...


06:39 Remco: Exactly.


06:39 Pete: And then also all the building is smart enough and efficient enough where it's only consuming the power that's generated on-site. Is that basically?


06:47 Remco: Exactly, so they put solar panels on it to be extracted data from the solar panels. We've got all kind of meters in the home, smart meters, smart edge meters, all kind of temperature, humidity, CO2 sensors in the home. We extract all the data into the clouds, to do the analytics and to prove that the house is also carbon neutral.


07:07 Pete: And so do those exist? [chuckle] It seems like... That's a tough one, isn't it? I guess it depends on the size of your house and what you're doing in your house, but is that feasible?


07:17 Remco: Yeah. So in the Netherlands, we don't have big houses like in the US.


07:20 Pete: Right, right. No McMansions.


07:23 Remco: So it's more, yeah, so it's more [07:26] ____ houses. And yeah, we have around, also normal houses, and I think 120, 130 meters, square meters, so that's not huge.


07:36 Pete: No, no. The square footage of the house also limits maybe the amount of energy you can create, right? You've got limited space for solar panels.


07:41 Remco: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And one of the other things that is of course very important is, of course, the energy with the solar panels. Second of all, of course, if in the winter, for example, if the homeowner put the window open, the whole day, that house will never be carbon neutral because heating will...


08:05 Pete: Yeah.


08:05 Remco: Go the whole day and all night.


08:07 Pete: Can't solve for bad behaviour.


08:08 Pete: And that's why we need to...




08:10 Remco: Exactly, yeah. So we also try to help the homeowner to get insight in that usage and that energy.


08:18 Pete: I see.


08:18 Remco: To reduce energy.


08:20 Pete: Is the power generated primarily through solar or is there any kind of wind or other geothermal or...


08:25 Remco: No, at the moment, in the houses, it's really solar panels and of course the extra energy that they bring into the home is from green energy. So in the Netherlands, most of the homes use green energy.


08:37 Pete: Ah, see, I see.


08:39 Remco: Or other solar panels...


08:39 Pete: So they're getting a power feed from the grid, from the government grid, that's green energy, that's probably wind-powered, right? And then they're augmenting that with local solar, and then the energy they're consuming...


08:50 Remco: Exactly.


08:50 Pete: Is kind of net neutral, I guess.


08:53 Remco: Net neutral, yeah. Exactly.


08:55 Pete: Fantastic.


08:56 Remco: Yeah. Because in the winter, of course, you don't have enough sun. We don't have enough sun in the Netherlands.


09:00 Pete: Right. Same here, I mean you know...


09:01 Remco: At the end of winter [09:02] ____.


09:02 Pete: Yeah, Northwest, we don't have... There's no sun here.




09:06 Remco: No. A lot of rain.


09:08 Pete: Interesting, wow. So has that solution been deployed then? I mean, your solution with...


09:13 Remco: Yeah. We have now around, I think 700 houses deployed.


09:18 Pete: Wow, fantastic.


09:19 Remco: And depending of the speed, of course, of building extra houses will be added every month. Something like that.


09:25 Pete: So basically what you're doing is you're instrumenting. 'Cause I know in the US and maybe in the Netherlands too, there are ways to instrument your patch panel, your incoming electrical panel, to look at loads on a per circuit basis. And then what you're doing is then you're doing that kind of analysis, you're doing the HVAC kind of heating cooling analysis. Are you doing anything about the appliances themselves in the house? Are there appliances that are kind of determining being smart about their energy usage or is that all just happening sort of asynchronously from the rest of the system?


09:58 Remco: Yeah, so we put some, let's call them Smart Energy power adaptors in the home... To see, okay, the refrigerator, how much energy is that costing, etcetera, etcetera. So we're also getting that data. In the future, there are plans to also put in a small panel in the home to give direct feedback to the... To the homeowner itself. So at the moment, it's more or less... It's more information behind for the homeowners, so they can watch later on how the house is performing. TBI can see it directly, but the homeowner sees it later. So they want to bring that information already directly in the home, so the homeowner can react on it directly.


10:44 Pete: Right, right. So you're measuring current draw from different outlets, for lack of a better term, right? It's... Giving them a heads-up and...


10:52 Remco: Yeah.


10:53 Pete: But in the future, then hopefully these things that are plugged into the wall will get smarter and smarter about... Everyone needs to sort of get a message to sort of go into a low power mode because somebody's running the dryer maybe... I don't know. Like is there intra-appliance communication going on here, or is it just sort of every appliance for themselves?


11:14 Remco: Yeah, we see that already with load balancing. So in the Netherlands, we've got a big amount of electric cars that we are charging at home. And so we've got a lot of solutions also in this case with load balancing. So depending on the usage of the home, the car will load more or less energy. So I expect much more solutions also in the more smaller devices that can do more or less the load balancing and talking to each other what's happening.


11:47 Pete: Yeah, exactly. I think that's kind of key. We actually just installed a level two charger here in the US, 'cause we have a Chevy Bolt, our newest car. It's great, and you know the 110-volt charge here, that doesn't really... That only works for emergencies. It takes like an hour to get five miles of charge, so the level two we had installed and run off a 40-amp breaker in the panel and... Yeah, I could see that the inter sort of communication between devices, that will be sort of maybe the next step.


12:16 Remco: Yeah, we see that already here sometimes with more [12:19] ____ systems that try to connect all the kind of devices to each other. But that's still, in my opinion, more for tech guys like us, because it doesn't work always, and... You need some pack of expertise.


12:33 Pete: And a bunch of logos on the box, it's supposed to work with the other thing, it never does. So, yeah, been there. [laughter]


12:38 Remco: Exactly, yeah. It never does.


12:39 Pete: So what are you using Azure for in this case? I'm curious. What are your... There's obvious things, I can name them, but I'm just curious. How are you leveraging Azure in this particular solution?


12:50 Remco: Yeah. So in the start, we've built our own device, our hardware partner did that in the home. And the device is managed by the Azure IT app, where we get the data from the device into that. But we can also control the device now. So it's...


13:05 Pete: And is that sort of a monitoring device that's kind of like a power monitoring?


13:09 Remco: No, it's more, let's call it a gateway. I think that's the best naming convention for this device. So it's really the center of the device in the home. It'll extract the data from the solar panels, from the heating, from...


13:22 Pete: Okay. Right, right, right.


13:23 Remco: Etcetera, etcetera. And the data is directly feed into the systems. Of course, we've got also some devices that we cannot connect in the home itself, and we extract the data from APIs of those suppliers.


13:36 Pete: Right, right.


13:37 Remco: Those are more or less the two options for data ingestion into the platform.


13:40 Pete: Okay.


13:43 Remco: We're using Azure Digital Twins version two to make a replication of the home itself, so we get data from Outerdesk. Outerdesk is a piece of software where they design the homes with, the data from the Outerdesk we import into Outerdesk... Into the... Sorry, Azure Digital Twins. And we combine that data with the sensor data in the home. And that combination reflects into a digital twin of every home of TBI.


14:10 Pete: Wow. That's cool.


14:10 Remco: And next the data flow into the digital twin, we analyze the data with applications like Timeshare with Insights, where we can do simple Timeshare risk analytics. And of course, this data is all time-based data, solar data, panel data, with consumption and data, and energy data, etcetera, etcetera, so that they can do the fast analytics by themselves. And the other one is we use Azure Stream Analytics, where we can analyze the data for anomaly detection. So we know, for example, one of the biggest dealings with TBIS, it's a really simple one but it's water pressure. So in older homes in the Netherlands, we've got gas boilers, or sometimes electric boilers, and they need a certain water pressure in them. If you don't have enough water pressure, you cannot shower, and you don't have heat. And it's an easy solution because you just put extra water into the boiler system and it works.


15:15 Pete: Right.


15:16 Remco: But yeah, if you are in the morning, and you want to go to the shower and it doesn't work, most people will call, in distress, TBI... And say, "Okay, my boiler doesn't work." So then the mechanic will go to the house and fix the problem, and it gets quite expensive.


15:30 Pete: Right, they're very expensive. So you have... So there's sensors for water pressure in the pipes? Is that...


15:36 Remco: Yeah, no, it's a sensor for water pressure in the boiler.


15:41 Pete: Down in the boiler. Okay.


15:44 Remco: So it's indirect in the pipe of course. And that data we get in, and we see a certain pattern that it's declining every time, and then, of course, we can... Or call the homeowner at first, so they're now calling the homeowner, and ask them "Can you fill it by yourself?" And if not, they will come to you and fill it for you of course. But yeah, it's more... Let's say proactive maintenance. Instead of predictive maintenance, it's more proactive.


16:07 Pete: Right.


16:09 Remco: So that's one of the options they are doing. We're using Azure Machine Learning, also how to calculate optimized boiler temperature, to reduce energy in your boiler systems you can set a certain boiler temperature. And of course, how high the boiler temperature, or how more energy you will consume and you need to find per home the optimized boiler temperature, so we use machine learning for that, Azure Machine Learning. And of course, we use Power BI to present all the data to the stakeholders of TBI.


16:44 Pete: Wow, that's cool. So you're getting your money's worth then, on Azure. [chuckle]


16:48 Remco: Yeah, sorry, yeah.


16:50 Pete: That's cool. Are you doing any Edge AI, speaking of Edge AI, on the gateway itself, or is it really more of a data collector sender?


16:58 Remco: Yeah, so at the moment, it's really in Data Collector and of course we can send commons back. Based on this platform, we are also building out now also for the same customer a connected buildings platform, so same architecture but different use case, and therefore we use Edge devices of course.


17:16 Pete: Yeah, I can imagine. Actually, I had someone from RXR realty on the show about a month ago, I don't know if you've heard that one, but that was interesting 'cause they're focused more on the commercial... They're one of the largest real estate companies in New York City. And so they focus on commercial real estate, and in fact, they're using Azure for a lot of work, safe at work scenarios around social distancing, and mask-wearing, and occupancy, and other things. So I can imagine once you move into a commercial space, there's obviously the energy usage and the efficiency, which you guys are focusing on here for the personal home, but then there's all these other scenarios, and when you get into smart buildings, obviously that's kind of a whole lot more complex.


18:01 Remco: Yep. Yeah, and the other issue where, of course, we checked if we could do something with Edge devices, especially from a machinery perspective in the future that can be in a good solution, but if you look at the moment for the pricing model, between Edge device and then [18:18] ____ device, it's more or less almost 50% cheaper to put you and then, yeah, [18:23] ____ more stupid device in the home.


18:24 Pete: Yeah, no, that's true. That's true.


18:27 Remco: Yeah, and it's getting better also. On the simple devices, you can also already do some simple machine learning or smart analytics stuff, as a Microsoft... They put also a lot of energy, and with Edge [18:43] ____, for example, that can do really simple machine learning on a really simple device... You have a lot of CPU power.


18:52 Pete: So if your had your wish list of, "I really wish this technology existed to help me with these solutions, and it doesn't exist yet," is there anything that's kind of top of mind for you that you could snap your fingers and say, "Kinda wish we had that."


19:05 Remco: That is a really good question. Yeah, so for this use case is more or less for the device in the home. So as TBI, to get a bit of hardware power, maybe build some... Piece of hardware. And it's of course school, and I like that, but if you... As a construction company, do you want also to be in a hardware builder of those devices in the home? So I'm looking forward also, if you look at Microsoft, and what they are doing with things like Surface Laptops, etcetera, will they come ever with a cheap, really good more and less Edge or [19:47] ____ Autos device, Microsoft branded working really good... That's one of the things that...


19:53 Pete: I see. So sort of a Microsoft Edge AI sort of platform or something that...


20:01 Remco: And of course, yeah, there are some... Yeah, so there are, of course, already some development kits for that... With the fusion Kit and, etcetera, but that is more or less for the, yeah... For playing around with AI... It's really cool device. But from a production perspective, you need of course something else.


20:18 Pete: Interesting. Yeah, no, that would be good. That would be good. I think there's a lot of... Just a lot of work ahead of us in terms of... When you talked about Edge AI and just a lot of the things that Altius is doing is certainly on the cutting edge. You said you have about 700 homes, so obviously lots more to go with that. Do you know of any other overseas... I'm wondering if there's any equivalent sort of efforts going on in the US. I know that there's a lot around efficiency, but not necessarily around marrying efficiency with the kind of intelligence... I don't know if there's anything else.


20:52 Remco: No, we see in Europe a good interest now in this solution. We also try to more resell this solution. They say it's Avanade's. And of course, you can use the same concept in a building. I think in the US also, to save energy in a big building, you can save a lot of money.


21:14 Pete: Sure, sure.


21:15 Remco: I think these guys can also help with that.


21:20 Pete: Yeah, yeah, for sure. Fantastic. How's the pandemic been affecting your business over the past... I guess... Year, almost, God forbid.


21:30 Remco: Yeah. I have to say, in the Netherlands, it's quite good. So they are still building houses. There's a big need for houses in the Netherlands, especially cheaper houses. So we see a lot of attention, and I think if you look at the pandemic and data and AI, I think companies need more and more data and AI also during pandemic and also afterwards. From that perspective, I see a good future around this topic. If you look at IoT, a lot of companies are now investing... Okay, how can I do the same without the people, and IoT, of course, can help with that, with more automatic... Think about connect the factories.


22:16 Pete: I think actually it's interesting...


22:18 Remco: [22:19] ____ etcetera, etcetera.


22:19 Pete: One of the things I've heard in a constant theme is the pandemic, obviously, it's been pretty horrific, but the... We are getting a lot more data-savvy as a population, we're learning to understand data, and the importance of data and data can mean life and death in many cases, so just the sort of data savviness of the population, it's a positive thing and like you said, I think people are trying to just now use technology to be safer, to be more efficient, remote and automated. That's kind of fast-forwarded a lot of investment in technology over the past nine months or so. And I guess part of it is doing more with less, in many cases. We're trying to be more efficient and more effective. I think once we can get the pandemic under control, we get the... Climate change comes back into the front page, as you would say, and so the work that you guys are doing in terms of really being smart with energy, energy is such a finite resource and... Although I guess it's infinite, if you consider like the sun and the solar system, but anyway...


23:28 Remco: And the wind.


23:29 Pete: And the wind. I guess it's infinite. No. But that's kind of the next thing is we need to get smart and take some of the technology investments we've made and really apply them into our everyday life and... Yeah, yeah, 20, 30 years from now, this will just be commonplace, not having this kind of smarts in your home, in your building and not having a renewable energy, not being carbon-neutral itself will probably seem very odd a decade from now.


23:58 Remco: If you look at the IoT... IoT is already... They're frightened about... 20 or 25 years...


24:03 Pete: Yes, yes. We had that discussion the other day. I've been involved in it for that long. We used to call it embedded systems, and now it's called IoT. Now, but actually now they're gonna change it, it's gonna be called Edge, so Edge computing is now the cool... Even cooler than IoT. [chuckle] Get ready for another name change, but... Yeah, no, it's fascinating. Well, it's great, I really appreciate you taking the time and explaining what you guys are doing. Any kind of closing thoughts or other things you wanna communicate out to the audience around where this stuff is heading.


24:40 Remco: Yeah, I think what you just mentioned, if you look at sustainability of the epidemic, I think that should be one of the main topics for us in the world, and I think IoT can really help with that, creating that achievement with sustainability. And of course, in your home, it's all small what you're doing, but if everybody's doing it, it's really big for the world.


25:03 Pete: Right, right.


25:05 Remco: So we should use these kind of technologies in our homes, and our buildings. That will really help a lot saving energy and reducing a lot of, yeah, bad air, in the air, in the world.


25:18 Remco: Yeah, you know, I hear you. I think there's a phrase, I think it's like, "I can't solve the problems of the world by myself but I can solve the problems that are here locally, on the ground that I stand". And I guess if everyone is doing that and you kind of using technology in the right way to be sustainable, then it does add up. That's gonna be an important one. Perfect. Great, well, Remco, I really appreciate the time. It's been nice meeting you and I appreciate all the support of the Microsoft community, and hopefully our paths will physically cross at some point, maybe some future Mobile World Congress, I don't know, Barcelona or Netherlands or something in the future.


25:58 Remco: Or maybe on the airport of Amsterdam, man.


26:00 Pete: Yeah, I'm sure. I'm sure we've actually probably passed each other in the airport at some point.


26:03 Remco: Exactly, yeah.


26:04 Pete: Cool, alright. Appreciate...


26:05 Remco: Nice to meet you, Pete.


26:06 Pete: Thanks, Remco. Take care.


26:07 Remco: Thank you.


26:07 Pete: Bye-bye.