Digital Twins Concept in a World Ruled by GIS

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series February 2022

Digital twins bring together elements of the geospatial professions, resulting in smart cities of the future

The concept of digital twins is not new in manufacturing and mechanical processes that can be monitored and, if necessary, rectified. But what is a digital twin? A digital twin is a computer-generated exact replica of a physical object that has incorporated sensors which monitor the diverse internal tasks of the device in order to guarantee its correct functioning and potentially predict malfunctions or the need to replenish consumables.

One good example in the mechanical world might be a car assembly line where an exact digital replica has been created in a computer on the manufacturing floor and hundreds if not thousands of sensors constantly monitor that every piece of equipment is working in perfect coordination with every other one. This would be impossible to replicate without the use of complex algorithms and awesome computing power.

But how does this manufacturing process apply to our industry? Well, it is rather simple. The most complex machine ever designed and built by humankind is a city. A city is a multi-layered series of public services mounted on top of each other, designed and built over centuries, serving an ever-growing population and in need of constant maintenance and expansion. The concept was originally established in certain cities by electric utilities through the implementation of SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems. A conventional SCADA, through real-time controllers connected to field sensors and actuators, maintains a watchful eye on electric grids in order to guarantee continuous, uninterrupted flow of electricity to customers.

When we apply this concept of 24/7/365 monitoring of public services not only to electric power, but also to water, cable, phone, garbage collection, and any other service in a city, we have created the foundation for a digital twin of that city.

The only rational way to manage such an enormous amount of data in a city is through the implementation of a GIS, but imagine the difficulties in digesting and presenting these networks to municipal employees in a manner that would be useful and help the city run smoother. This is the challenge facing cities today trying to upgrade their GIS to become digital twins of their urban dwellings. For starters, the technological challenges to integrate all this disparate data into one single representation is daunting enough, but to that you need to add the fact that all these services have different rules and fall under many different regulatory entities.

But a digital twin of a city is not only a complex integration of its diverse public services, it is also an opportunity to aggregate monitoring opportunities such as flood, lightning strikes, crime statistics and many others. GIS implementations that include topographical contour lines also offer a unique opportunity to be used in conjunction with pluviometry data to offer flood forecast in cases of extreme precipitation events.

Current implementations of digital twins’ concepts in municipal and local government GIS offer a unique opportunity to add a fourth dimension—time—to the equation. Adding a time component to any network allows inspection managers and engineers to follow the development of the network throughout decades of maintenance and replacements while allowing for the accurate forecast of potential failures, thus allowing for the planning of preventive measures.

Regardless of the obvious advantages of having constant monitoring and evaluation of the assets of a city, it is not only in the area of utilities that digital twins could have a profound impact on how smart cities of the future conduct and plan their own systems, this four-dimensionality of GIS also allows urban planners to take growth into consideration when planning and expanding transportation systems, altering the way citizens move around the urban footprint.

Digital twin implementations also take advantage of BIM (building information modelling) deployments in which modern dwellings are modeled and built following strict digital protocols that allow maintenance managers and planners alike integrate each new construction into the fabric of the city, therefore adding current and future needs of public services, garbage collection, and environmental impact.

In a world where urban micro-agriculture, renewable energy in the form of solar and wind in small scale, buildings in a Digital Twin environment will play a more decisive role in the sustainability of the city. Distribution routes for the excess produce, as well as the administration of the energy produced at each location, will be a definite improvement over the current state of affairs in which each location administers production, increasing waste, and preventing efficiencies that can make the difference at the city level.

Imagine the possibilities in terms of planning when all aspects of the city can be modeled and monitored. Decisions regarding growth and sustainability will be based on the same data provided by the city itself and not in projections or experiences in other cities that might reflect or not the reality of each region.

With the concept of digital twins applied to cities we finally see a convergence of all geospatial initiatives developed and fined tuned over the last four decades—GIS, GPS, BIM, SCADA, CAD, and many others working together in one gigantic model that accurately forecast trends and alert managers to the needs of citizens in real time.

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