ArcGIS

ArcGIS: A Foundation for Digital Twins

Digital Twins are virtual representations of the real world that incorporate physical objects, processes, relationships, and behaviors. Digital twins are used to represent accurate historical state, to observe and monitor performance, and to explore or predict future state. A digital twin of a fixed asset or real-world system benefits directly from the inclusion of GIS data about the asset and GIS context around the asset.  GIS can be used to create digital twins of the natural and built environment and it can also be used to integrate many different digital representations of the real world.

 

In the last several years, the convergence of geospatial technology, building information modeling (BIM), and interactive 3D has driven a conversation about “Digital Twins” and how they may be used to simulate single facilities, entire cities, and even large natural systems.  We frequently get asked how GIS plays into the digital twin strategy of our customers and here we provide some of our most common answers.

What is a digital twin?

Digital Twins are virtual representations of the real world including physical objects, processes, relationships, and behaviors. When we reference digital twins in GIS, we’re typically speaking about virtual models of real-world assets or natural systems along with information models, data, reports, analyses, and user experiences intended to capture state, monitor performance, and predict future outcomes.  Digital twins may be used to represent current, past, or even future states of assets and may not reflect exactly what exists in the real world today.

The concept of a digital twin originated in the product manufacturing industry.  Precise digital models of complex objects, such as airplanes or cars, can be captured in a database for purposes of reporting, analysis, and, eventually, simulating and testing an object’s performance. The original digital twin concept helped move the use of data about an asset from strictly used for finance and cost-accounting to use for performance and operational analysis that could then be iterated back into the financial perspective of the asset’s manufacture and sales.

GIS information overlaid on Aerometrex I3S mesh for Denver provides a powerful web dashboard for cities
GIS information overlaid on Aerometrex I3S mesh for Denver provides a powerful web dashboard for cities

Today, we’re involved in many discussions about how the digital twin concept can be applied to real world infrastructure, buildings, and even for systems at scales as large as whole cities and natural environments.  The idea that a model of fixed physical assets can be used to help understand performance, costs, and construction is compelling. Extending the digital twin concept to inhabited systems that include ongoing human activity including maintenance and operation becomes even more interesting, but also drives complexity to be high.

GIS has been used to model real world systems with high accuracy for years.  Utility networks, legal parcel boundaries, and traffic networks have all been represented in GIS for purposes of asset management, maintenance, and planning. The digital twin concept builds on older techniques and technologies for data warehousing, federated systems, and object-based data models by adding realism, interactive user experience, and high-resolution 3D and 4D models of assets and systems. Ultimately, the digital twin must help the owner or operator of the real-world asset or system to solve business or mission-critical applications to justify the investment and process changes that will inform and maintain the twin.

What kinds of problems can a digital twin help solve?

The three main problems that digital twins address include:

Circular Quay project by Norman, Disney, and Young uses BIM and GIS for renovation conditions communication
Circular Quay project by Norman, Disney, and Young uses BIM and GIS for renovation conditions communication
BIM data in context of reality capture mesh
BIM data in context of reality capture mesh. BIM data courtesy and copyright OSU Facilities team. I3S mesh courtesy Nearmap.
Visibility analysis in Boston using ArcGIS Urban
Visibility analysis in Boston using ArcGIS Urban

Is GIS necessary to have a digital twin?

If the goal of a digital twin is to represent historical accuracy, view performance, or predict future state, then any digital twin of a fixed asset or real-world system benefits directly from the inclusion of GIS data about the asset and GIS context around the asset.  GIS can be used to create digital twins of the natural and built environment and it can also be used to integrate many different digital representations of the real world.

For singular objects in the mechanical world, an entire object can be represented in a self-contained data schema that can be used for observation and hypothesis testing.  For fixed physical assets or natural systems, data about soils, asset materials, weather, traffic, maintenance, and utilities will all be stored in different data models with diverse data quality, resolution, and ownership.  GIS is the only technology that provides a simple key – ‘location’ – that allows complex analysis of such diverse data models and data sets.

Urban heat analysis in Boston showing Nearmap I3S mesh
Urban heat analysis in Boston showing Nearmap I3S mesh

In the last few years, Esri has invested in ArcGIS to dramatically improve capability that turns a GIS into the ideal technology to bring together federated data sets behind dashboards, StoryMaps, and 2D, 3D, and 4D maps to facilitate communication, observation, and analysis of complex systems, such as entire cities.  One of the powers of GIS is that the more data that is added, the more benefit the system provides.

GIS data also powers many simulations of real-world dynamics and behaviors.  For simple analyses, such as investigating the shadow impact of a planned structure, 3D GIS provides dynamic, easy-to-use experiences in a web browser.  For complex simulations, advanced geoprocessing workflows may be used to simulate changes in large utility networks and then to see those changes in a simple dashboard.  Where ArcGIS stops, partner solutions can simulate airflow through a major urban center or the power outages in a major utility. We have seen significantly increased demand for the use of GIS content in game engines to take advantage of their capabilities as well, leading us to release the ArcGIS Maps SDK for Unity and Unreal Engine.

What are some of the considerations that would help determine the scope of a digital twin project?

When approaching a digital twin project, much like approaching any complex system design, the ‘operator’ of the digital twin will need to identify criteria that will help limit scope while also supporting longer term maintainability.

Given some of the diversity of the uses of digital twins, here are some of the considerations that will help identify the scope and requirements:

A digital twin is a virtual model of a real-world object.  In scientific context, a model is used to either test hypotheses or to predict future states of systems. Scientific models are typically tailored to test specific elements of the system and often can’t be stretched to test or predict scenarios that weren’t considered when building the model.  When building a digital twin project, it’s worth considering that success may be dependent on limiting scope to achievable outcomes, not on planning to solve every future problem at once.

Comparison of normal and 100 year flood conditions using Frankfurt mesh from Aerowest and SURE for ArcGIS
Comparison of normal and 100 year flood conditions using Frankfurt mesh from Aerowest and SURE for ArcGIS

What are some of the successful elements that go into building a digital twin?

Many of the elements that go into a successful digital twin project are the same elements that drive successful IT implementation projects across industries. Fundamentally, the digital twin is deeply dependent on data, ability to connect data, and ability to create user experiences on top of the data that help solve problems and increase understanding.

DC COZ 3D zoning tool uses ArcGIS
DC COZ 3D zoning tool uses ArcGIS

What’s next with ArcGIS and digital twins?

Today, ArcGIS customers can combine reality capture, 3D, 2D, planimetric data, and real-time feeds in dynamic, interactive experiences to help describe individual facilities, large utility and transportation systems, or entire cities.  Geospatial digital twins, built with ArcGIS, can be explored on mobile devices, in a web browser, or through rich desktop applications from Esri and from partners.  The geodatabase portion of a digital twin, stored in ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Enterprise, is accessible through a wide variety of Open Standard APIs, services, and data formats that facilitate exchange and integration with other enterprise systems such as IBM Maximo, Autodesk BIM 360, and many more.

Denver Aerometrex data captures the city at high detail and can be used for analysis, historical state, and planning. Shown in ArcGIS Earth.
Denver Aerometrex data captures the city at high detail and can be used for analysis, historical state, and planning. Shown in ArcGIS Earth.

Many of our customers are already jumping in and exploring the art of the possible today.

GIS has played a central role in helping customers model, analyze, and observe their assets and systems for decades.  New technologies, such as game engines and real-time data feeds, have added exciting possibilities to create more interactive, richer experiences for users to explore, analyze, and experience their assets and the world around them.

You can expect from Esri that we’ll be investing heavily in reality capture, BIM integration, buildings system integration, IoT, and many more technologies and tools that will help our customers create the next, great Digital Twins of tomorrow with ArcGIS.

Visit our Digital Twins page to keep up-to-date on what were doing next!

About the author

Chris Andrews is an experienced product management and technology leader who enjoys solving real world problems, establishing high performance teams, and connecting people and businesses in positive collaborations. Chris started off at Esri as the senior product manager for 3D across the ArcGIS platform, based in Southern California. Chris now leads a team of product managers with responsibility for ArcGIS Hub, ArcGIS Excalibur, 3D, ArcGIS Urban, AEC/CAD/BIM offerings, ArcGIS Business Analyst and more. Before Esri, Chris was the lead product manager for Autodesk’s Infrastructure Modeler (now InfraWorks) and Digital Cities efforts and was previously in the enterprise integration industry focused on CAD-GIS integration. Chris has focused on strategic innovation, defining and driving to production new products at top tier software companies. He is active on social media and provides mentoring on 3D, product management, and technical career growth.

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