The magic mirror meets Industry 4.0
First developed in the 1960s, the concept of the digital twin is gaining real traction today and is hailed as a revolution in some sectors of industry. But how do digital twins work – and how are we making use of them at Thales?
Let’s start with a definition. A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical entity, object, process – or even an entire system – and can be used to provide insights and aid decisions through the visualisation, analysis and manipulation of data.
Unlike simulation systems, a digital twin has a physical counterpart, connected via a data feed, that it shares behaviours a characteristics with. For maximum value, digital twins can benefit from and re-use data and information at every stage of a system’s lifecycle providing valuable insights, cost reductions, quality improvements and de-risking at every stage.
Initially small scaled in scope, representing a single product such as a jet engine, digital twins can now model a complete, complex system such as an aircraft, building or production line – or even our entire planet, as we shall see below.
"Houston, we’ve had a problem..."
The concept was first developed by NASA in the 1960s for the American space programme, and what would long remain its greatest achievement came in 1970 with the rescue of the crew of the Apollo 13 mission.
NASA engineers used simulators to replicate the operation of all the main components of the space module. These simulators were controlled by a network of computers and could be synchronised with live data from the spacecraft. And it was largely thanks to these connected digital duplicates that the teams on the ground and in space could work together to identify the problem and save the mission. Their achievement was all the more remarkable because they didn’t just use a digital twin but a network of digital twins, each modelled on an independent simulation system and able to interact with all the others.
An industrial revolution?
Today, this technology has been elevated to new heights by advances in connectivity, data processing and artificial intelligence.
The consequences for industry are clear. Instead of making a physical product and putting it through a series of tests, its digital twin can be used to analyse and improve its performance and anticipate any problems or failures. Added to that, people in other locations can use holographic headsets to get to grips with a product and see how it works. And what’s true for a single product is also true for a system, a network, a factory or even an entire supply chain.
Digital twins offer a vast array of potential benefits in many sectors of industry: energy, transportation, urban planning for smart city projects, automotive engineering and healthcare (for testing treatments on a virtual patient, simulating complex procedures or improving the quality of prosthetics).
From virtual prototyping to drone traffic management
Today, Thales is at the forefront of exploiting the possibilities of this technology and even pushing back its limits. Its engineering teams are thought leaders in digital twins having been progressively improving the digital twin concept for many years. Thales digital twins combine high-fidelity synthetic environments with powerful model-based systems engineering, data science and machine learning capabilities providing a growing number of products to the market. Today, the Group is increasing the use of digital twins in all areas of the business. Here are just a few examples:
To boost the efficiency of our engineering teams, the Multiphysics DigitalTwin project is using virtual prototyping to optimise hardware subassemblies at every stage of the development process, from initial design to functional validation, before any physical prototypes are actually built.
“Digital twins speed up the development and integration phases and make it easier to model and integrate a complete system,” says Christophe Dumas, Chief Operating Officer, Secure Communications and Information Systems. “This is how we are approaching the development of MELISSA, for example, the secure satellite communication solution that Thales is providing for France's military refuelling aircraft.”
So digital twins clearly have huge potential for training users of military systems as well as civil systems such as air traffic control and unmanned traffic management. Thales used a digital twin to develop the vetronics (vehicle electronics) for the French Army’s new multirole armoured vehicles as part of the Scorpion programme.
Beyond training, Thales is working with the UK MOD to support the digital transformation of test and evaluation activities, developing the concept of Digital Twins of Test Ranges as part of the Test and Evaluation Future Programmes. Developing digital twins of test ranges will allow a large proportion of Test and Evaluation (T&E) activities to be carried out in the digital domain, benefitting in faster, cost effective, safe and secure tests and moving beyond T&E for acceptance into T&E for capability.
The United Kingdom’s Future Flight Challenge1 is another illustration of how real and synthetic capabilities can be combined to solve complex problems. As part of the Airspace of the Future consortium, Thales is helping to develop a digital twin of the National Beyond Visual Line of Sight Experimentation Corridor. The project aims to create a safe and separate corridor for various types of commercial drones and air mobility vehicles.
Twinning the Earth
The most spectacular example of a digital twin project is undoubtedly Destination Earth, an ambitious initiative launched by the European Union to create a digital twin of the Earth. This avatar will be used to monitor the effects of natural and human activity on our planet, anticipate extreme events and inform public policy decisions as the world steps up to climate-related challenges.
Thales Alenia Space is working with Serco, the consortium leader, to implement the DestinE service platform, a key component of the project, for the European Space Agency.
By combining innovative models of the Earth system with cutting-edge computing capabilities, satellite data and machine learning techniques, DestinE will allow users to explore the effects of climate change on the different components – geosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere – and to develop strategies for adapting to these changes or mitigating their impact.
The Destination Earth digital twins will replicate our planet’s complex system, drawing on human knowledge of fields such as natural disaster mitigation, adaptation to climate change, ocean sciences and biodiversity. The ultimate goal of the project is to integrate all these digital replicas to form one comprehensive digital twin of the complete Earth system.
1 The UK Research and Innovation network’s Future Flight Challenge initiative aims to transform air passenger and cargo transport. It is focusing in particular on electric and autonomous flight technologies for drones, urban air mobility vehicles and hybrid electric aircraft for regional transport. The aviation of the future will need to be integrated into a complete system encompassing ground infrastructure, regulations and traffic control systems.