By Adrian Malone, Head of Digital Project Delivery and BIM, WSP in the UK

Digital twin is a relatively new term in infrastructure, but it’s one you’ll hear more of as industry practice catches up with what is now technologically feasible. 

A digital twin isn’t the same as the asset information model created through building information modelling (BIM); it’s a digital model that fully describes a real or planned physical asset, such as a new section of road, and its connection into existing transport infrastructure. 

A digital twin offers a multitude of opportunities to improve customer outcomes and really drive improvements and efficiency in design, benefiting the whole supply chain. It enables road network providers to tailor their solutions directly to meet the specific needs of their customers, and to understand how design choices impact journeys in real time. 

In this scenario, a digital twin would contain detailed design information about the road layout and construction, drainage systems, gantries and signage. It would combine this with predicted traffic flow models, incident management plans, and, once operational, live and projected traffic flow data. 

Living in real time
The digital twin is kept in sync with the real-world asset through sensors and other sources of data in, or close to, real time. If you were to look at a digital twin of a section of motorway, you’d be able to see exactly how that stretch of road was performing at that moment – including, for example, the traffic flow in each lane or the amount of surface water and the performance of the drains.

The digital twin can also contain historic information, including the original design specification and information on construction and maintenance. All the data affecting key operational decisions about the asset is available in one place – and there’s potentially no need to survey the existing highway prior to construction or upgrade works. This is particularly beneficial as such surveys can be expensive, time-consuming and hazardous.

The connection between the digital twin and the physical asset is often referred to as the digital thread – a flow of information that should, ideally, be two-way. The digital twin can then inform operational decision-making, and could one day make automatic, rule-based changes to the asset – like updating digital gantry signs to warn drivers about congestion or activating control measures to improve the flow of traffic.

Digital twin benefits
With all these elements in place, the digital twin can be used to manage quality – spotting and self-reporting damage to the road surface, for example. It can predict and proactively manage operation and maintenance issues. A network-wide digital twin would help ensure that maintenance on one section of highway does not coincide with works on alternative routes. 

The digital twin could also help predict and mitigate problems before they occur. For example, sensors embedded into the drainage system, combined with CCTV and other data such as rainfall intensity and duration, could be used to identify and repair a drainage issue and before it floods the road.

The digital twin can also model throughput and other performance elements using real-world data, and test different configurations to see how operational decisions will impact performance. Want to know the effect of different traffic management strategies on congestion? Ask the digital twin.

Creating a digital twin
Those are the benefits, but how do you create a digital twin? A fully integrated and intelligent digital twin is some years away, but with the right approach we can begin to create the first, more targeted iteration today. 

Begin with a clear picture of what you want the road network to do for drivers – its customers – and define the priorities. Then you can build a twin that will help you deliver everything from personalised traffic information to help the Taylor family avoid congestion to better road surfaces that make HGV driver Alonzo Gregory’s journeys smoother.

Six tips for building a digital twin:

 1. Start small: bite off a manageable chunk to develop into a digital twin
2. Decide what outcome you want to achieve, use customer insight to determine priorities
3. Identify the data needed to provide insight into the desired outcomes
4. Model the information process, including the digital thread 
5. Build the first iteration of the digital twin, test and iterate
6. Involve stakeholders from the outset and get their feedback 

Many of the building blocks for a digital twin already exist – for example in increasingly detailed asset information models and from already embedded sensors and existing CCTV.

In the coming weeks, we’ll explore how a digital twin can pave the way for a transformation in how road networks are delivered. In the meantime, if you’d like to discuss any of the ideas in the post please feel free to contact Adrian Malone.

About Adrian Malone:
Adrian is Head of Digital Project Delivery and BIM for Transport & Infrastructure at WSP in the UK. With more than 20 years of experience in the construction sector, Adrian has spent the majority of his career engaged with innovation and research in BIM and digital training including EU-funded research on industrialised  construction, BIM initiatives with professional institutions such as RICS and APM, and most recently, i3P. Adrian has a master’s degree in information systems, and combines his technical knowledge with a strong people and customer focus. He has experience in contacting and consulting organisations as well as both construction and facilities management. Adrian is a passionate advocate for innovation and digital transformation in the construction and engineering sector. Follow him on LinkedIn here.

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