Simulating the real world – even before it’s built


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In the 1960s NASA started building physical replicas of their spacecraft, so any issues arising on a mission could be workshopped on simulated versions of the ‘real thing’.

This twinning system famously came into its own when Apollo 13 ran into trouble, allowing engineers on the ground to simulate on-board conditions and ultimately bring the crew home safely.

In the intervening decades ‘twins’ that simulate physical systems have moved from space travel into more everyday business applications and, of course, have become fully digital. In fact, digital twins are now considered such a valuable tool that Accenture has listed them as one of the top five strategic technology trends to watch this year.

For University of Melbourne digital twin experts, a rare opportunity has arisen to test the technology’s potential and extend its capabilities.

In 2025, the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology will move to a new purpose-built campus at Fishermans Bend, a 480-hectare urban renewal site just south of Melbourne’s CBD. The University will be one of the first residents to move into the development’s ‘innovation precinct’.

Even though the building is still in the planning stages, designers and decision-makers are already interacting with it. Thanks to digital twin technologies, they are virtually testing different design options and their impact on users and the environment.

New insights into the real world

“Our digital twin represents the full capacity of the physical world – indoor, outdoor, above ground and underground,” says Professor Abbas Rajabifard, a geospatial data expert and Director of the Centre for SDIs and Land Administration at the University of Melbourne.

The digital twin, which was launched in 2019, uses a combination of machine learning, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality to answer nearly any query about the new campus design; from what public transport options will work best, to how the buildings will respond to hot weather.

Just like NASA’s Apollo 13 engineers, the team can simulate a vast range of conditions to probe solutions to different scenarios and problems. This is enabled by around 1200 rich datasets (many of them live), supplied by more than 20 Victorian Government departments.

Engineers and other decision makers can also connect their analytical tools and integrate their own data in a secure online system, to answer questions particular to their specific projects.

“It’s always learning. It’s a live system that learns from every interaction to keep providing more accurate and mature solutions and information,” explains Professor Rajabifard.

These data are often readily available – for example from Google Maps Street View, or VicRoads camera feeds. The power of digital twin technologies lies in bringing them together with analytical tools to examine how they interact with one another; what researchers refer to as ‘multidimensionality’ (as opposed to traditional ‘linearity’ between two separate data points).

Urban health and transport specialist Professor Mark Stevensona, whose work will draw on the new digital twin capabilities, says multidimensionality is allowing researchers to access previously inaccessible insights.

He points to the example of integrating vehicle telematic data (such as a car’s onboard GPS systems) with existing road use data to shed new light on old infrastructure problems.

“Every second all the elements of how you drive are overlaid with geospatial data, meaning we can begin to see how vehicles use infrastructure in ways we haven’t before,” he explains.

“For example, in areas where we see massive speeds and a large number of crashes, we have recently demonstrated that the infrastructure design is facilitating the crashes, not just car speed alone.”

It’s these sorts of unique relationships that researchers can start probing using the Fishermans Bend digital twin – for example, forecasting how train and tram use will be affected by the weather, or how crowds are likely to behave in the event of a building fire.

Sharing sustainability insights

Another benefit offered by the digital twin is the way in which it supports sustainable design.

While sustainability is often addressed in an ad-hoc manner, the digital twin allows it to be built-in from the beginning, with elements like energy efficiency and transport use tested directly.

It’s a significant improvement on extrapolating sustainable options based on prior experiences or other projects. And, given sustainable development is an international imperative, this means the digital twin will have wide appeal beyond just the Fishermans Bend Development.

“Our indicators will be common to many projects around the world – urban analytics, underground asset management, energy efficiency, environment efficiency,” Professor Rajabifard says.

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First published on 25 November 2021.

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