We’ve all grown used to maps on the internet; instead of paper atlases and dedicated GPS hardware, we now navigate with smartphones and tablets. Companies like Microsoft and Google have digitised the world, providing us with a 3D view of the infrastructure around us.

They’ve even gone some of the way to digitising the interiors of buildings, working with malls and large department stores to help people find their way to stores. It’s a process that has required close partnerships, working to take interior plans and add them to external building shapes. That’s a complex process, which takes time — but what if you could make your own interior maps without needing a partnership, and use that data in your apps?

SEE: Top cloud providers in 2020: AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud, hybrid, SaaS players (TechRepublic)

Microsoft’s Azure Maps is a platform for building your own mapping applications, offering a backend with mapping tiles and tools for adding overlays, routing vehicles (especially commercial transport), and providing demographic and other information. It’s a growing platform, with a competitive pricing model that makes it an attractive option for anyone wanting to add mapping data to an application, on the web or on PCs and mobile devices.

Introducing Azure Maps Creator

One of its most recent additions to Azure Maps is a new tool for building your own indoor mapping and using it in your own applications. Azure Maps Creator works with existing building drawings to add a new layer to your maps, converting uploaded data to its own formats and building map data from your drawings. Map data is turned into vector format tiles, ready for display, with the option of adding your own overlay data, for example from IoT building monitors.

There are restrictions on the files you can use for your mapping data. Maps will need to be uploaded as DWG files, which is AutoCAD’s standard format. Most CAD packages can produce DWG, but you may prefer to pass any drawings through AutoCAD to ensure that Microsoft’s import service is getting the correct data. Drawings are packaged in a ZIP file along with a manifest that describes the data associated with a building or site. You can only submit files for one location at a time.

Adding your buildings to a map

Each level of a location needs a separate DWG file, so all the first floor images for one site will be in one file, with all the floor files in the archive. Once a file has been uploaded, the Azure Maps Conversion Service processes your data. It can recognise specific features like units (rooms, offices, and the like), zones, openings, walls, building them into a basic taxonomy of your buildings that can be used in maps. One important requirement is that all your drawings need to be aligned and oriented the same way. Along with all your interior data, you need one additional drawing file: the exterior of your building.

While the structure of a building is important, you get much more from Azure Maps if you include a zones layer and zone labels, to add details about the various areas in your site. Zones can overlap, and are used to add metadata to your maps. More information about your buildings is included in the manifest file, with directory information about a building, as well as additional properties for units and zones. This way you can add details, say, of who a room is assigned to, or what HVAC system covers a section of a building.

Once your mapping data has been processed and added to your Azure Maps account, custom indoor mapping tiles are displayed using the standard Azure Maps V2 APIs, with the service-Get Map Tile API able to use Creator tilesets alongside Azure Maps own mapping assets. There’s a new Indoor Module in the Azure Maps SDK to help you use these new mapping resources. Map tiles can be linked to the Azure Maps Feature State API to add dynamic styles based on data from IoT systems or from other monitoring tools, so you can quickly show if a room is too hot, or if a meeting room is available.

Using the Indoor Module requires an Indoor Manager, which works to both display the tiles associated with an indoor map and keeps the various states of the map objects up to date, allowing you to take advantage of Feature States. Microsoft talks about these as tools for creating Intelligent Spaces — an idea it’s been talking about for years.

Using indoor maps in your applications

Making Azure Maps Creator part of the Azure Maps service gives you plenty of options, as you can mix its tools with the various geospatial APIs in Maps. For example, you can tie it to tracking devices using Azure Maps geofences, alerting you to tagged equipment leaving its assigned area. Once a geofence has been triggered, you’re able to see where the equipment is on a map, making it easier to track down and return to where it belongs. The same techniques can be used to improve site safety, applying geofences-based safety boundaries around dangerous areas and hazardous equipment, giving you a framework that can alert workers if they’re about to walk into an unsafe location.

There’s a lot of focus on IoT in Azure Maps Creator, but once you’ve instrumented an environment and enabled tools for geospatial analysis there’s a lot you can do with the resulting data. By mixing sensor data with, say, HVAC performance and costs, you can start to change the layout of equipment and rooms to keep air conditioning and heating requirements to a minimum. The ability to plot data on maps of your facilities, both for real-time reporting and analytics, gives you many options for how to use map data and mapping and how to incorporate them into your operational toolkit.

Intelligent Spaces have long been part of Microsoft’s futurist demonstrations, showing how building design ties into management, IoT and other smart building technologies, working across the web and into augmented reality tools like HoloLens. So it’s good to see Azure Maps finally bridging that gap, providing a framework where we can go straight from architects’ drawings to a fully instrumented smart building, with a set of tools that turn those drawings into a smart canvas, ready to display anything we want.