A call for action has been made, urging the UK tech sector to collaborate and cooperate across industries in an effort to develop a national ‘digital twin’ of the UK’s infrastructure.
With plans to tackle climate change and challenges with the UK's water, road and energy supply, a number of public agencies, technology firms and public sector bodies have proposed a solution to the UK’s infrastructure worries.
In short, a digital twin is a digital replica or representation of a system, process or place which mimics its real-world behaviour. The digital twin is often a real-time updated collection of data, models and algorithms allowing for better real-time analysis of assets.
Despite there being clear obstacles with plans to roll out a national digital twin in the UK, public bodies are keen to focus on the benefits.
UK construction firm Costain, in partnership with techUK and the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) has put forward a proposal to work closely with the government to address some of the UK’s most pressing national needs.
“We are not going to achieve a national digital twin unless we collaborate around this ambition. If all the companies got together and focused around a challenge, imagine how quickly we’d be able to address that and get a very diverse view of the world, which would make the final solution far better,” Kevin Reeves, group head of IoT and data services at Costain said during a techUK Brit-Twin event this week.
“What we at Costain are doing is we collaborate and focus really where we can to make an initial impact,” he added. “We focus on all the digitisation and information, but what actually makes it happen is the underpinning data.”
Reeves stressed that building a digital twin is not all about 3D models, but instead the UK has a lot of ‘legacy assets’ that need to be tackled.
“We’re starting to explore in the water sector about how we can start to bring some of those legacy Victorian assets to life, and how do we bring the information about those assets into digital twin realms?
“If we use drone technology and scanning, it’s a good way to bring out the assets into the digital twin world,” Reeves said.
According to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), developing a national digital twin provides the Uk with an opportunity for global leadership. It believes together with big data, machine learning and analytics, a swathe of maintenance issues regarding transport networks and mapping will be solved.
The NIC recommends a phased rollout of digital twin pilot projects, with collaboration across industries, to lead to an eventual national digital twin.
Already, in preparation for the expected national digital twin, it recommends assistance from an Information Management Framework and Digital Framework Task group to share data.
This leads to the NIC’s call for data sharing. “We recommend that the digital framework task group in the UK should regulate its network to endorse the role of the regulators in improving the quality and openness of infrastructure data,” Sarah Hayes, senior regulatory advisor at NIC said.
The ‘data for public good’ report, released in December 2017, details that a digital twin model can provide insights ahead of what is currently seen with existing infrastructure models, making it an invaluable tool for decision making.
A national digital twin, however, is “a computer model of a city or a region, bringing together all the data about the areas, buildings, infrastructure and the way it is used. It is a federation of models. It’s not just one model, it’s made up of many models which have a live connection to digital infrastructure,” Hayes said.
Ali Nicholl, head of engagement at Iotic Labs, pushed back a little on the overwhelmingly optimistic mood in the room. He believes that there could never be one digital twin model but rather, a series of connecting models that connect to multiple data sources.
“What we need to do instead, is start looking at composite digital twins, so creating digital twins of each of these sources and then bringing together into the thing that we care about, be it a pylon or a road, railway or an entire country and then recording not only the live information but also having a ledger of effects,” he added.
Overall, the NIC proposes the need for a digital twin pilot project, which will lead to the development of a national digital twin within the next 10 to 15 years, according to Hayes.