Digital twins are very popular, there are many experiments. As usual with new developments in the IT sector, a cacophony of interconnected systems threatens. Rijkswaterstaat wants to combat this and has drawn up a vision and roadmap. “We want to take control,” says Jaap Bakker, Coordinating Specialist Advisor Asset Management and Data Integration at Rijkswaterstaat.
During the conversation, Bakker is supported by Tessa Eikelboom, expert in digital twins. She is Team Leader Advice and Testing Geodata at Rijkswaterstaat and prepares the vision and roadmap.
“An increasing number of issues require attention in the management and restoration of structures such as bridges and tunnels. We saw from the market that more and more 3D models are being used. Companies work with point clouds, which means that the IT department has more and more data and processes it into a 3D model, which is actually a digital twin,” says Eikelboom.
A point cloud is a mass of data; they are millions of dots with XYZ coordinates that can be supplemented with an intensity or color value. They form the basis of a 3D model and are used in a Building Information Model (BIM). For large infrastructure projects, contractors almost always prepare a BIM before starting to build anything physical, although Rijkswaterstaat does not oblige to work with a BIM in tenders. Despite this, the digital brother of a physical object that has not yet been realized has become an indispensable part of projects.
“A BIM model is just one application of a digital twin, which the market has been working on for a while, but it’s still a fairly new development for us,” continues Eikelboom, “and we see that there are a large number of pilots created to work with digital twins. And then everyone thinks for themselves what exactly they mean by a digital twin. To avoid this confusion, we have defined a distinction between unique digital twins applications and the generic term ‘Digital Twin’.”
Eikelboom noted that the pilots did not think much about scaling up the technology and its application. “We also saw supplier lock-ins arise. As a customer, we fear the risk of a different software package being used for each project. We would like to avoid that situation.”
Lots of confusion
Bakker agrees that there is a lot of confusion about digital twins. “We distinguish between the phenomenon itself and the applications. You can compare it to a mobile phone and apps, where apps make up the application. An example of an application is a predictive twin that is actually only used to determine in time if and what maintenance is required on the physical brother. Another application example is a digital training and simulation site for operators of a storm surge barrier. They are two almost completely different applications, but with both data, whether supported by models or not, they are presented in a user-friendly way through a visual interface to support a process. Sometimes in 2D (in fact, we’ve been doing it for a long time in the GIS world), but increasingly in 3D or 4D.”
Working with digital twins at Rijkswaterstaat has many advantages: You can see a work of art digitally from several sides, and you can, for example, see if conflicts have arisen in the design, such as a column that does not fit well with an apron. On a flat map, it is quite difficult to determine whether, for example, cables in a bridge can pass through a concrete pillar or must be routed around it. This is very easy to see or query in a 3D model of the same bridge. Digital twins can also make an important contribution to data quality. For example, AI can be used to recognize inconsistencies between the data sources attached to the twin and, for example, show a red light in the twin where data is inconsistent. While using bridges, roads and the like, there is always something in the physical world that is changing. Then the data in the twin is sometimes no longer correct. Even then, a digital twin can offer a solution, for example by recognizing objects from scan images. AI can then be used to determine where the data in the systems no longer corresponds to the situation outside and to suggest an improvement.
“3D is indispensable and is already often used. It has undeniable advantages. Still, there are many questions: where do we use this, how do we get information, what requirements does it have to meet, how do we store it and how do we maintain it? In addition, it is clear that the market is already in full swing and that Rijkswaterstaat is already being confronted with 3D information in all possible places.”
Eikelboom explains that he wants to introduce an extremely important layer between the digital twin (the data) and the applications. Rijkswaterstaat calls this intermediate layer Basic Facility 3D. This will contain all kinds of building blocks that enable the applications to do their work.
These building blocks have different functions and will have to get along with each other. Building blocks will be created that focus on visualizations, computing power, storage, security and rights, connections with (external) data, artificial intelligence, archiving.
“We can’t do it alone. That’s why we work closely with the market and IT companies. We want to find out in a structured way what the sector needs to learn in the field of digital twins,” says Eikelboom.
She refers to an initiative Geonovum: the Digital Twins of the Physical Living Environment DTFL. Geonovum is a state foundation with a lot of knowledge and a rich network. The initiative is still in the start-up phase, but plans to set up ten field laboratories to investigate in practice what it means to work with digital twins. “The goal is to share the knowledge gained about creating and working with digital twins. By making data, computational models, visualization and participation models more ‘open’, we want to make their potential widely available to society. All this with the ultimate goal of being able to provide insight into the views of various stakeholders in spatial tasks. Or to be able to test different considerations in scenarios before a final decision is made,” Geonovum reports on its site.
Rijkswaterstaat is one of the parties participating in Geonovum’s Digital Twin Physical Living Environment program.
The application for a grant from the European Recovery Fund for research into the use of digital twins in the spread of national (interrelated) issues has been rejected. “But we think it’s important, so we’re now looking for alternative financing,” says Bakker.
The quality of data
Rijkswaterstaat is now conducting around forty experiments with digital twins, sometimes with a contractor, sometimes with a university. For example, the use of digital twins in the renovation of the IJssel bridges, to ensure that the contractor receives all the information on the front in an interactive, insightful way. “This limits transaction costs during the tender, improves collaboration and pays for itself in implementation,” says Bakker.
ProRail is also practicing with digital twins. “And a lot is also happening on a European level. In addition, Microsoft wants to offer digital twin services in Azure. This creates social dilemmas. Piggybacking by the big players is faster, but how dependent will a government be on this? And what do you agree on that? Everything is in full motion. If you don’t expect enough, it will happen to you. Not only Rijkswaterstaat, but also other lower and higher governmental organizations must prepare for this and ensure that we are in a good position”, explains Hills.
“The data has to be of the right quality,” adds Eikelboom. “So you have to make mutual agreements about that. We identify such aspects in our vision and roadmap.”
Author: Teus Molenaar