What Are Digital Twins and Why Are They The Next Stage in the Internet of Things (IoT)?
The digital twin has been an established concept since the turn of the century, though limitations have held it back as a worthwhile investment. Recently, though, developments in the Internet of Things (IoT) have made the digital twin viable, so much so that it is having an impact on a wide range of different industries.
Binary District Journal spoke with Michael Batty, Bartlett Professor of Planning at University College London and Chairman of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) about how they are built.
Prof Micheal Batty, one of the leading global scholars in the field of Smart Cities
Spawning Digital Twins
The need for digital twins comes, in part, from the IoT technology enabling them. Up until now, work in the IoT field has been very device-centric - we have been developing devices and figuring out how they can best communicate with one another and transmit data.
Increasingly, though, those using IoT technology are now being faced with organising those devices in real-world spaces. Why is one sensor more appropriate for one area of a building? Why is an IoT system set up in the manner it is?
This is where digital twins come in. The next stage in the IoT is not just having a system of sensors in place, but being able to virtually represent the physical world with a digital twin that models the relationships between the people, the devices and the space itself.
“75% of organisations implementing IoT technology already use digital twins as part of their system, or are planning to do so within a year”
One example a representative from Azure uses is the programming of a thermostat. If you want to measure and maintain the temperature of an office building, for example, the movement and quantity of the people inside it is going to play a big part in that. A digital twin can help you map the changes.
According to Gartner, 75% of organisations implementing IoT technology already use digital twins as part of their system, or are planning to do so within a year. The research and advisory company sees this as evidence that the tech has gone mainstream - despite that 75% being broken up into 13% that currently use the technology and 62% that plan to.
Powered by the Internet of Things
A physical twin is reflected in a digital twin by use of the developing IoT technology. Factors like climate and movement can be tracked by sensors and mapped into the digital twin’s ecosystem to create as responsive and realistic a replica as possible. Why, exactly, would you want to have a responsive replica of a real-world asset?
Well, where digital twins excel as a technology is the ability to factor in context to the existing structures of algorithms and data. Once the twin is accurately created, digital simulations can be undertaken that can prevent problems arising in the physical twin, while changes can be trialled through the digital twin and return ‘realistic’ results.
We asked Michael Batty just how important developments in the IoT are for the progression of digital twins.
“IoT is rather central to the idea of a digital twin in some contexts,” he says, “in that the digital twin of some physical systems like a building needs ways of connecting it to the system itself; this requires the Internet of Things not only in terms of sensors but also controllers to make the physical systems work digitally.
“However, there are digital twins that can be separate from the system itself, and this is particularly the case where the system is not exclusively physical but depends on ourselves – human beings – for its operation. Thus a digital twin of a city can never be the same as the city because there is always the non-digital human factor.”
“A digital twin… actually works to dynamically recalibrate your environment”
Christopher O'Connor, former General Manager and Senior Executive Leader of Internet of Things at IBM, gave a presentation in 2017 detailing how the tech giant is building digital twin products.
“It’s not just a schematic you’re making. It’s not just a picture,” he says. “You’re making a dynamic model that you’re going to shift as you go through the design, the build and the operations phase of what you do with the life cycle of that product”
“A digital twin, when operating properly, not only represents a picture - it’s not only something that you can see in glasses and explode, but it actually works to dynamically recalibrate your environment. It affects the design, the build and the operations phases of everything you do around that particular device.”
Digital twins are being highlighted as a key technology in the development of smart buildings. They offer the ability to bring together systems that would previously be unconnected - from HVAC to wayfinding to security, for example - to draw insight from.
For Michael, a digital twin is an absolute necessity if a smart building is to function properly. “The idea of the digital twin is to provide a digital version of the physical system such as a building,” he says.
“Increasingly the digital is merging with the physical and in some contexts, the digital is necessary for the physical system to operate at all”
“In some situations, a digital twin is simply a more abstract model of parts of the physical system but increasingly the digital is merging with the physical and in some contexts, the digital is necessary for the physical system to operate at all.
“In the case of a smart building, the building cannot be smart without the digital twin, which is the software to control the building. Hence the building and the digital twin are almost one and the same: the twins cannot be separated and cannot have their own existence.”
For an example of digital twin usage making a material change, Chris points to IBM’s own IoT centre in Munich. The facility is as developed an example of digital twins making buildings smarter as you will find.
“We’ve instrumented several of the floors, we collect information and we apply our digital twin models across both,” he says. “We can show you dynamic recalibration around comfort, we can show it around the efficiency of how the workspace is laid out and the interactions of the different types of office capabilities that are there, and last we can show you the economic or environmental impact of how the representation takes place at the same time.”
There is, ultimately, no way to create a truly perfect digital twin, at least not yet. IoT sensors are accurate, but there is such a multitude of factors affecting any product at any given time that to map it flawlessly is incredibly difficult.
In examples like IBM’s IoT centre, though, the sensors are sophisticated enough for the team to be able to make more general improvements to the space. These improvements are then themselves monitored to ensure they have the desired effect.
Smart buildings and smart cities are the future. IoT sensors becoming ever cheaper and smaller means that governments and businesses will be able to reflect their physical assets in accurate enough digital twins to make some serious changes.
The likes of IBM will lead the way in terms of putting IoT technology to use in the field of digital twins, but they will be relying on myriad companies developing more advanced sensors to push their product forward. A digital twin is more than just a schematic, it’s the future of smart environments.
The ability to fully realise the potential of digital twins across various applications and industries is dependant on the access to and validity of the data going into them. It has been theorised that data being used for inter-object interactions could attract malicious actors looking to either infect or disrupt the exchange. Blockchain integration could offer a solution.
Blockchain’s core tenants of being trustless, decentralised and having immutable data preservation make it an appealing platform to involve in the process of transmitting data to and from the physical world. A report by Deloitte has highlighted how source authentication of the data can be made robust through cryptography, while the decentralised nature of blockchain can remove the risk of easily exploited points of failure.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]
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