By Lauren DeLorenzo, Journalist, Infrastructure magazine

By creating a virtual reproduction of our physical environment, digital twins have proven to be immeasurably useful to Australia’s infrastructure industry. Thousands upon thousands of these models exist but what if these datasets could be merged into a single, more powerful, adaptive model? 

Digital twins are extremely valuable infrastructure planning tools, providing a 3D replica of our physical world so that costs, time and potential disruption estimates can be made. But an even more accurate and comprehensive 4D model, which factors in timeframes, is on the horizon.

In his keynote presentation at the 2021 Critical Infrastructure: Digitisation Series virtual event, Wayne Patterson, Director of Spatial Operations, Spatial Services at the NSW Department of Customer Service, explained how spatial digital twins build upon existing datasets to create a 4D model which allows for more informed infrastructure planning.

Mr Patterson explained that the NSW Spatial Digital Twin (SDT), which builds on the existing Foundational Spatial Data Framework (FSDF), has allowed the state to gain greater insights into the physical environment, resulting in more effective decision making.

The NSW Spatial Digital Twin

The NSW SDT was launched in February 2020 for the Western Sydney City Parkland district across about 8,825 km2, an area of significant infrastructure growth. The SDT program is able to link with existing digital twins, engineering designs, datasets and plans and can model how they will interact with each other.

“Through the SDT, we’re able to visualise, analyse, contextualise and model scenarios, real life events, and enable a more informed decision-making process,” Mr Patterson said. 

“Data and digital transformation has become central to our society. The functions of government, the development of industry and research all rely on data and insights. 

“The NSW SDT is key infrastructure to enable our digital economy and digital society and is the pathway to Smart Precincts, Smart Cities, Smart NSW. 

“The SDT provides a federated single source of truth for government-held data as well as a collaboration platform for government, industry and the community to communicate and engage.” 

The SDT delivers foundation spatial data which can be used to inform work in the development and planning stages. Foundation spatial data consists of 300 key datasets which span transport networks, digital elevation models, aerial imagery in 3D and 4D (time).

Delivering consistent data 

Mr Patterson said one of the pillars of the spatial digital twin program was that it acts as a single source for reliable data that is produced by a data custodian or organisation. 

“It’s authoritative and replaces highly variable data interpolation by allowing consistent data inputs and processes,” Mr Patterson said.

Mr Patterson said the richest data was of little use unless it’s quickly, simply, easily and securely available. He gave the example of an organisation using its own purpose-built application, with unsuitable baseline data. 

“Any models developed on that data may not have a reliable fit for real-world applications and could not interact with the data that is surrounding it. Spatially enabled digital twins drive the need for better access to high-quality data,” Mr Patterson said.

“By being able to provide our foundation spatial data to the organisation, they were able to consume that into their application, industry standard data APIs, do their modeling, do their planning, and republish a model back into the ecosystem where there was the ability for it to actually plug in and play with all of the other information that was in there.

“That’s why one of the key considerations in terms of connecting data and establishing the relationships and dependencies and constraints was role-based access to information with the NSW ecosystem, where we can make data publicly available.”

The benefits of a targeted digital transformation

The NSW SDT isn’t just expected to provide more accurate, detailed digital mapping, but also to help with more efficient project delivery.

With the capacity to improve decision making at the planning stage, the NSW SDT is potentially able to reduce infrastructure costs and timeframes, resulting in benefits estimated at $1.24 billion over ten years.

Savings within the property development pipeline alone, Mr Patterson said, could reach $300 million annually.

“Imagine when you start looking at the engineering sector, in terms of this, having digital models of engineering assets that are able to plug in and connect to the spatial digital twin, leverage the Internet of Things (IoT),” Mr Patterson said.

“The NSW SDT isn’t just static information, it’s real-time information as well. Real-time transport feeds, real-time monitoring and measuring of water pressures for water mains, real-time measuring of temperatures and humidity, and all of the other sensors that are available.

“The ability for us to be able to build up that holistic view of what is actually happening at any particular point in time in the communities we live, or an area that we are interested in, is really, really powerful.”

Aligning SDT with strategic priorities

The NSW SDT is helping the state deliver a number of strategic priorities by using data inputs to create recommendations and support informed decision making. 

The program is able to align these priorities, streamlining communication and supporting strategy integration. 

“Instead of having an independent Future Transport Strategy 2056 and a State Infrastructure Strategy, Tech Central Strategy, or whatever the strategies are, being able to integrate and bring them all together allows that alignment and that greater appreciation of how we can better manage, plan and deliver and respond to anything that happens across our state,” Mr Patterson said.

The future of SDT

The NSW Spatial Digital Twin will soon provide a 4D model (3D plus time) for the entire State thanks to a $40 million investment from the NSW Digital Restart Fund (DRF).

The future implementation of the program will require system transformations, such as moving information into the cloud, providing monitoring and management and system migration.

“We are looking at a complete 3D and 4D time-enabled set of foundational spatial data across the state that is available to all, to leverage in their own applications, for their own purposes,” Mr Patterson said.

“We will be developing system and workflow integration of that 3D and 4D data so that it is useful and has purpose for our stakeholders and for our users.”

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