Digital Twins Are the Big Thing Now… Size-of-the-Earth Big

November 11, 2020

Written by Ryan Szporer
A picture of two children in front of a planet

The popularity of digital twins is increasing radically. It’s matched only by their growth in size.  

That’s a statement based on upcoming projects in the sector, such as the European Commission’s Destination Earth, which seeks to gradually roll out a digital twin of its namesake this decade. At that point, it will be able to perform such functions as simulating the Earth’s natural systems, helping plan in the event of natural disasters, and supporting European Union policy-making.  

“Digital Twin” a New Name for a Classic Concept 

Destination Earth may be poised to become a digital reflection of the planet. However, it’s a reflection of an ongoing trend to adopt the technology as a predictive-maintenance mechanism. As an illustration, Global Market Insights anticipates the market will experience a compound annual growth rate of 34% until 2026, when it is projected to hit US$35 billion in revenue.  

As Digital Twin Consortium Executive Director Richard Soley mentioned in an exclusive 6GWorld interview, in only six months of existence the organisation has 160 members. Soley called the pace “absolutely amazing.” However, it’s not completely surprising considering the technology’s history, which is longer than one might imagine. 

“Arguably the technology goes back at least 40 or 50 years, but it’s only been called a digital twin for less than 10 years. Everybody’s doing it and it’s the right thing to do to connect the physical aspect of devices with a digital shadow of that,” Soley said, recalling how, 40 years ago, designing ASIC chips, he deployed much the same solution in principle. 

“They were simulations of chips, because chips were and still are very expensive to build. So you build them digitally and try them out before you build the actual chip. We just didn’t call it digital twin in those days,” he said. 

Soley cited the U.S. Air Force (USAF), which is a member of the Consortium, as an example. Soley said the USAF creates digital twins for everything they make, simply to know whether or not it will fly. In a manufacturing context, he said a company might want to know a variety of things about a new machine destined for the factory floor, including whether or not it will fit where it’s intended to be placed as well as connect to other devices.  

Destination Earth… in 7-10 Years 

Destination Earth is actually set to integrate several smaller digital twins, each replicating a different aspect of the planet. For example, a stakeholder workshop was recently held on the development of one such twin, pertaining to climate change adaptation. During the Q&A session, speaker Francisco Doblas-Reyes, Director of the Earth Sciences Department at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, made the point that “digital replica” might be more accurate, even if the terms are generally used interchangeably.  

“For me, if I have a Porsche and you have the same model of Porsche that might be in a different colour, these are twins. They have the same performance characteristics. There might be another brand that is copying Porsche that is actually producing a Porsche that doesn’t behave as a Porsche. That’s a replica and the replica has different properties compared to the original thing,” he said.  

“I’m not saying we should build a parallel Earth, but somehow managing expectations from whoever is on the other side will require us to explain what the limitations of the product we are putting on the market are,” Doblas-Reyes explained further, with Soley and the Digital Twin Consortium currently working on releasing a standard definition of the technology in the coming weeks. 

Soley said he found the Destination Earth initiative fascinating. Asked if the projected 7-to-10-year plan was realistic, he thought the timeline struck the right balance for a project of its magnitude and its necessity out of environmental concerns. 

“There’s no way to do it faster because you have so much information to input, you need so many people to do it, but you don’t want to do it slower, because you want to meet the CO2 accords. In order to do that, you have to know what it is you’re generating, how much CO2 you’re generating, and how to slow it down,” he said. 

Helping to Make This First Earth Last 

With Destination Earth in mind, the environment has become a focal point for the technology… in a wide variety of sectors including telecommunications. Speaking to 6GWorld, Richard Stevenson, Telecoms Commercial Lead at mapping software developer Esri UK, explained how digital twins are helping more and more.  

Primarily, having desktop access to a digital representation of the network and surrounding environment cuts down drastically on the number of trips to a site, he said. Stevenson also noted a trend in the industry, using as an example how Telefonica’s O2 UK plans to be carbon-neutral by 2025

“Everyone’s becoming more aware of their environment and I think this is one way to really help if they’re creating those carbon-neutral targets. It also helps them with their operation’s efficiencies, because we know that [Average Revenue Per User] is coming down and data [usage] is going up,” he said. “What better way than to have a digital transformation of your systems and your workflow and the way that you do things?” 

One feature of Esri UK’s ArcGIS software is the tree heights they capture through a partner every three years. Predicting how trees will grow helps in various ways, particularly pointing out where installations can and shouldn’t be placed.  

Similarly, Netherlands-based Overstory uses AI and satellite data to predict grow-in and fall-in risks of trees to help electric utilities mitigate wildfires, as one example. Overstory predicts the impact of climate and human intervention to help “build a more resilient planet for the future,” according to CEO Indra den Bakker. 

“We have to of course understand what is now happening, in the short term what can happen in terms of massive droughts, but also, by combining the different data sources, we also know that a tree might grow into assets or power lines in 6 or 12 months, based on the species, the growth rate, the soil conditions,” he said, speaking to 6GWorld.  

“Ideally, we don’t only want to make it predictive, but also prescriptive, so understanding why do we need to plant a tree at a certain moment, what kind of impact does it have on the total ecosystem as well,” he continued. 

Den Bakker opined that as data becomes more accessible in the coming years, it only bodes well for all stakeholders. They include those in the office and the people on the ground, in an overall bid to protect the Earth’s natural resources. In that sense, Europe’s Destination Earth fits a similar mould. However, as big in scale as it is, it’s not necessarily the peak for the technology. There’s potentially higher to go in Stevenson’s view. 

“I just think the scenarios are only limited by our imagination,” Stevenson said. “The things that we can do now we never thought that we could do previously. Doing the Earth is great. What about building scenarios like everybody travelling to the moon? I just think we’re going to see more and more things to come. It’s a very exciting area for our industry to be in.” 

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