By Jaydeep Saha, Contributing Writer, HCL Technologies Ltd.
The concept of digital twins was proposed in the 1960s. But it wasn’t until 2017 that it was recognized by Gartner as a top strategic technology trend.
What are digital twins and how do they function?
A digital twin is a virtual representation that serves as a real time replica of a physical object or process. It has three elements:
Physical item in a real space,
Digital twin in software form, and
Data that links the first and second elements together.
Businesses around the globe are today looking at how to deploy digital twins across a broad range of applications — from engineering design of complex equipment and 3D immersive environments to precision medicine and digital agriculture.
However, to date, applications have been highly customized and only accessible for high value use cases, such as the operations of jet engines, industrial facilities, and power plants.
Digital twin use case: India mapped
A leader in premium-quality digital maps, GPS navigation, GPS tracking, location-based apps, and GIS solutions, MapmyIndia is trying to bridge the gap between the physical and digital world.
In April 2017, it announced a series of map- and location-based technology and product releases, as well as strategic ‘Make in India’ alliances with other best-in-class Indian organizations, such as the Indian Space Research Organization. MapmyIndia is stitching all the components of maps and locations together to create a ‘Real View Digital Twin’. The result will be an all-India map of outdoor and indoor spaces, in both 360 degrees and 3D. It will be highly accurate with live updates and available in all local languages.
Digital twins in space
NASA was the pioneer of the original digital twin. But in March, the BBC announced that the European Space Agency, in collaboration with the European Commission and others, announced Destination Earth — a digital twin of the planet.
By the end of 2024, the European Space Agency hopes to have collected enough data to have a digital twin that will focus on natural disasters and provide countries with concrete plans to save lives. The predictive process involves bringing together of several digital twins that monitor a range of activities across the planet.
“Each twin must be an executable one and should cater to several use cases. This twin technology — when combined with new technologies of the metaverse — provides significant added benefits to B2B enterprises. For example, in wind farms, we have created digital twins of the wind turbines and ported them to the metaverse; eliminating the need for physical maintenance of the turbines on the wind farm,” said Hirren Turakhia, Senior Vice President - ERS Digital Transformation Unit Business Head, HCL Technologies.
Forbes reported that leading technology companies, like AWS, are also working hard to lower the costs and simplify the deployment of digital twin technology. AWS IoT TwinMaker is making it easier and more accessible to build digital twins.
Serving the purpose already
The market size for digital twins exceeded $5 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of over 35 percent between 2021 and 2027. According to Forbes and Tech Informed, some groundbreaking digital twins developed in recent years included:
The human brain: The EU-funded Neurotwin project aims to simulate specific human brains to build models that can predict the best treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Epilepsy. Clinical trials using the model are due to start in 2023.
The living heart: The healthcare industry is starting to embrace digital twins to improve personalized medicine, healthcare organization performance, and new medicines and devices. One large scale example that involves several stakeholders coming together is The Living Heart Project – launched in 2014 to crowdsource a virtual twin of the human heart.
An entire human: Former GE CEO Bill Ruh predicted that one day, every human will have a digital twin at birth. Using that person’s unique genome, it will be possible to predict the effects of different drugs, providing insight into the best treatment options if the person is struck by conditions, such as cancer or Parkinson’s disease.
Every Tesla ever sold: Tesla creates a digital simulation of all its cars, using data collected from sensors on the vehicles to upload to the cloud. This allows the company’s AI algorithms to determine where faults and breakdowns are most likely to occur and minimize the need for servicing.
Los Angeles transportation: The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has partnered with the Open Mobility Foundation to create a data-driven digital twin of the city’s transport infrastructure. It will model the movement and activity of micro-mobility solutions, such as the city’s network of shared-use bicycles and e-scooters.
A sports stadium: Los Angeles’ Sofi Stadium has its own digital twin, which models not just the stadium itself but also the 300-acre Hollywood Park campus around it. Users can access applications specific to the features and functionality that they need to work with.
Shanghai: The Shanghai Urban Operations and Management Center has built a digital twin of the city. Its creator, 51World, uses data from satellites and drones to construct a living model that is helping authorities to plan and react to Covid-19. It can also be used to simulate the effects of natural disasters.
Replicating Yorkshire: Slingshot Simulations is currently using digital twin technology to improve the transport network in Leeds, York, and Hull. Slingshot’s platform aims to auto-generate 3D models of all three cities and the surrounding areas, allowing planners to test different ways to boost the capacity of the existing network, reduce congestion, and air pollution.
3D-printed bridge: The steel bridge in central Amsterdam is remarkable for two reasons: it’s the first pedestrian bridge to be entirely constructed via 3D printing and it has a digital twin. A network of sensors, placed across the structure, gather data that is used to build the twin. The data can then be used to analyze its performance as it comes under stress during everyday use.
“The largest ROI of a twin or a set of twins shall be realized when it creates a twin ecosystem that creates new monetization potential — either through efficiency enhancements or new revenue streams,” said Turakhia. He shared the following real-world examples:
Fire Prediction-as-a-Service: The consequences of fire incidents are devastating and severely impact people, property, and the environment. Over the years, the data collected shows the enormous amount of property damage and the high number of casualties. Digital twins and interconnected devices within buildings are now being used to generate models to provide an accurate prediction of fire damage and how to mitigate the threat. This model uses an inside-out approach to give an accurate prediction.
The basic infrastructure required for digital twins
In an article on The Conversation, author Amlan Ganguly, Associate Professor of Computer Engineering, Rochester Institute of Technology; and Nalini Venkatasubramanian, Professor of Computer Science, University of California, Irvine, highlighted its adoption process:
Digital twins are often used to model, understand, and analyze complex systems where performance, reliability, and security of the system are critical. In such systems it is paramount to test any change — whether planned or unplanned
To test changes, it must accurately represent the physical system in its current state — with continuous updates via fast and reliable communications channels
Creation and maintenance often involve collection of vast amounts of data and its processing requires advanced computing technologies
High-speed internet connections and wireless networks, along with servers, including the cloud, are must
Faculty members of NASA and the European Space Agency are starting the Center for Smart Spaces Research, where one of the projects is building the basic technologies for creating digital twins
Conscious digital twins?
Technology analyst Rob Enderle believes that we will have the first versions of thinking human digital twins “before the end of the decade”.
“The emergence of these will need a huge amount of thought and ethical consideration, because a thinking replica of us could be incredibly useful to employers,” he told BBC.
In Meta’s virtual reality platform, you may be able to give your avatar a similar face to your own, but you can’t provide it with any legs because the technology is still evolving.
Prof Sandra Wachter, a senior AI research fellow at Oxford University, told BBC: “We have a long way to go until we can model a person’s life from beginning to end, assuming that is ever possible.”
“Digital engineering service providers, like HCL Technologies, can help enterprises create a strong foundation for their digital transformation — leveraging our capabilities in digital thread and autonomous operations — so that they can ‘lead’ the change in their respective ecosystems. Not just follow it,” concluded Turakhia.