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Why the UK needs a national digital twin

Matthew Evans, executive director, techUK, explores how we can make the vision of a national digital twin a reality, placing the UK at the forefront of putting data to use.

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In December 2017, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) released its Data for the Public Good report, in which it recommended that a ’digital twin’ (computer model) of Britain’s Infrastructure should developed to help plan, predict and understand our assets.

 

When this report was released, we had real questions about whether this was realistic and whether there was the willingness to make the changes required to deliver this. We are pleased to say that already we are seeing progress in addressing these questions and we are more convinced of the value in tackling a challenge of such unprecedented proportions than ever. We want a National Digital Twin, a Brit-twin, if you will!

 

Digital twins take flight

 

A digital twin “integrates artificial intelligence, machine learning and software analytics with data to create living digital simulation models that update and change alongside their real-life counterparts.”

 

A digital twin “integrates artificial intelligence, machine learning and software analytics with data to create living digital simulation models that update and change alongside their real-life counterparts.”

 

The value of a digital twin is that it can provide comprehensive, almost real-time insights into a physical asset or service, meaning that asset-owners can better test, plan and manage the asset.

 

If you have been on an Airbus A330 to A380, or a variety of Boeing 777 or 787s, you have enjoyed the physical world’s benefits of digital twin technology. Rolls-Royce is a noted user of digital twin technology, using it to examine, understand and predict how an engine would react in varied contexts, including extreme conditions.

 

“With highly detailed modelling, we can understand the impact on the engine components, so we can be certain this will not have a significantly detrimental effect on the flight of the aircraft," says Rob Fox Engineering Associate Fellow (Whole Engine Modelling), Rolls-Royce.

 

Scaling it

 

While it is clear to see the value that digital twins can provide the aviation industry, it is a very different ask to implement digital twin technology at a national scale and have a National Digital Twin.

 

Delivering Brit-twin will be a challenge, but a challenge that the tech sector is ready and willing to help make happen from a technology viewpoint. The UK Industrial Strategy set out a Grand Challenge to “put the UK at the forefront of the AI and data revolution”.

 

With our “world-leading data science research capability and AI expertise” the UK has a unique opportunity to position itself as an ambitious trailblazer for the development and application of digital twin technology, scalable to sizes yet to be seen around the world.

 

The UK already has the technological capabilities necessary for delivering a National Digital Twin, but this exciting opportunity does not solely rely on the technical aspect. This opportunity will require continued strong leadership and ambition from Government, but will only be delivered by a coordinated, collaborative approach involving the tech, construction and infrastructure sectors.

 

This will involve changes in business practices and processes but the tech sector stands ready and willing to be a partner on this journey.

 

A national digital twin would involve changes in business practices and processes but the tech sector stands ready and willing to be a partner on this journey.

 

It is also important that we bring everyone on the digital twin journey with us. Realising the full economic and social potential of a National Digital Twin will only be possible if we build trust and confidence in this data-driven project from the beginning.

 

After all, it is worth remembering that the name of that NIC report was “Data for the Public Good”.

 

As the development, deployment and use of advanced data-driven techniques and technologies advances at pace, this raises many profound legal, social and ethical questions and issues that go beyond data protection and which need to be explored and understood.

 

As the work to create a National Digital Twin begins, it is important to ensure that effective mechanisms are in place to anticipate, identify and consider the wider implications of these innovations, mitigate any potential risks and build trust and confidence in the National Digital Twin project.

 

Doing this effectively is the best way that we can ensure we can be at the forefront of developing and deploying digital twin technologies that could drive huge benefits for our economy, society and individuals in their everyday lives.

Progress

 

Within the UK there has been much to applaud over the past 12 months, with leadership and vision provided by the:

We support the steps that the Government has taken to date and are keen to capitalise on this momentum and engage with the various opportunities now and as they arise.

 

Collaboration is the key to all of this. One all-encompassing computer model of every infrastructure asset in the country is highly unlikely to be the solution. What we are on track to see, as developed by the DFTG, is “an ecosystem of digital twins that are connected by securely shared data".

 

Constructing the National Digital Twin, and maintaining it, will require a highly collaborative approach both within the tech sector and across others sectors – specifically the public and the academic.

 

The Gemini Principles

 

The recent publication of the Gemini Principles demonstrates an early commitment to a highly coordinated, collaborative approach to developing a National Digital Twin and an accompanying information management system to truly use data for the public good.

Source: The Gemini Principles, Centre for Digital Built Britain
Source: The Gemini Principles, Centre for Digital Built Britain

“The vision for Digital Built Britain is to enhance the natural and built environment, thereby driving up commercial competitiveness and productivity as well as quality of life and wellbeing for the public”

 

To show our support for the work so far, and to bring the wider tech sector together to move the conversation forward in 2019, techUK is hosting a free event to unpack how we can make a National Digital Twin a reality by looking at real-world applications, understanding infrastructure owners’ visions for a National Digital Twin and hearing from organisations who can facilitate the development.

 

Taking place at techUK’s London office, on 22 January, we would be delighted to welcome you.

 

You can access agenda information and registration here.

 

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