Let’s begin with a definition. The ‘textbook’ description is that a digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical entity. This can be anything small, from a lamp or a computer, to something larger such as a Formula 1 car or even a city. The virtual environment links the two worlds and helps to better understand the physical object.
It starts with a 3D model, which is subsequently enhanced with additional data. For airports, this could be live operations data, allowing them to see on-site activity. If you think of a terminal building, for example, cameras or sensors can be introduced at doorways to understand how many people enter or leave on a specific day.
There are also no limits on the size of a digital twin. I know of some companies that are actually looking at making twins of the earth! Another impressive example is NASA, which built a digital twin of the equipment it sent to Mars. By simulating the technology on earth, it can run tests before launching anything into space.
With digital twins, airports can assess different scenarios, cost savings, and operational impacts before planning any major construction work. The passenger experience will also be easier to monitor. Airports can gather real-time data to see whether there are long lines at security, for example, and subsequently turn this into an area for improvement.
Overall, I see a number of key areas of interest for digital twins at airports, beginning with asset management and maintenance. By having a 3D model, airports can click on a single piece of equipment and see all the data attached to it – when was it installed, how much does it cost – in a way that’s visual and easier to analyse.
Secondly, when controls information is added, airports can simulate how to grow their systems responsibly. This would be beneficial when considering sustainability goals. Finally, operations will become more predictive. Once (IoT) sensors are added, airports can maintain equipment as desired, not only when failures are detected.
Objectives and collaboration
One crucial consideration for an airport is its overall objective. It’s one thing to have data, but if an airport doesn’t know what to do with it or it isn’t the right data to begin with, then it’s not going to be of benefit. So, are operations or maintenance more crucial? As an example, if an airport wants to reduce lines at security, there are certainly measurable ways this requirement can be translated into a digital twin and the situation analysed.
An airport is a massive organisation where so many stakeholders interact with each other. As such, there will need to be a healthy collaboration in the industry to make digital twins a success. It’s important that all data matches up and everyone ‘speaks the same language’, because this will give airports more flexibility than ever in terms of decision-making.
The way ahead
Vanderlande’s approach is clear. We would like to have as much data as possible in a scale model (so, the baggage system, the HVAC system, ramp movements etc), and allow all the relevant organisations to access and help improve it. Then we can figure out what positive impacts can be implemented at any airport, regardless of size.
So, how far away are we from widespread use of digital twins at airports? Technology moves so fast and it’s closer than we think. I wouldn’t be surprised if digital twins became a standard customer expectation on the next greenfield project. The way is clear and Vanderlande has the knowledge and expertise to make it a reality.
I have discussed this topic in Vanderlande’s Check-in podcast as well. Listen to the episode here: