Chapter 2 – How Do Digital Twins Work?
Though the practical applications of a digital twin can vary, they can be broadly grouped into two categories: the ability to provide a replica of an existing environment and the ability to provide predictive modeling. Let’s take a closer look at these two uses to see how they work.
Any well-built digital twin should be an exact copy of a physical reality. What’s interesting about this is that the data and measurements are available for any use that may arise, including purposes that weren’t considered when the data was originally collected.
In the joint use industry, this wide range of uses is especially important because requests for attachment to utility assets are multiplying exponentially with the rollout of 5G and the related deployment of small cell equipment to densify networks. With each new request, companies must examine existing reality to determine, for example, the current condition of a utility pole, the amount of equipment already attached, the precise placement of that equipment, and any make-ready work that may be necessary to allow any proposed attachments. A digital twin could simplify and speed up this process by eliminating multiple trips to the field.
Another advantage is that even after construction is completed, new data still can be collected to update the digital twin and allow for comparison of the asset before and after new equipment was installed.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of a digital twin may be how useful it is for predictive modeling. In fact, numerous industries have been employing digital twins to predict the effects of various modifications or harmful events on machines and other equipment for years now. (For example, in the auto manufacturing industry, a digital twin of an automobile could be crashed repeatedly under an endless variety of circumstances, with far more variations than would be practical using physical models, at little expense.)
In the utility and communications space, digital twins enable companies to manipulate the plant by simulating a huge array of possible changes, whether intentional or accidental. Using this type of modeling, it’s easier to be proactive in managing assets. For example, when modeling suggests equipment failure may happen, the company can repair or replace the equipment before it malfunctions.
Digital twins are also useful with storm predictions. For another example, a computer load analysis on a group of utility poles could simulate storms of varying strength, showing which poles are too weak to bear the brunt of heavy winds. A digital twin of a substation and its surroundings could potentially be used to determine the substation’s susceptibility to flood damage from a nearby creek and to computer-test the effectiveness of different remedies such as levees, flood walls, and equipment reconfiguration.
Simply put, predictive analytic options are endless.
In the Field
Good data is the foundation of a digital twin. While there are many technologies available to capture accurate data, let’s review what happens when you send a technician into the field armed with a handheld device that combines measurement with photography, a technology known as photogrammetry.
Software loaded onto the device ensures that the technician captures all the necessary information about the pole, its surroundings, and any equipment attached to it, from fiber-optic cables to distributed antenna systems (DAS) and small cell units.
In this scenario, the goal would be to use the data collected to construct a three-dimensional photographic representation of the pole, complete with measurements. This will determine what kind of data is collected.
In this case, you’ll need to know the height and circumference of the pole and the distances between ground level, each attachment of cables or antenna equipment, and the distribution lines at the top of the pole. While you’re in the field, you could even find out how close the pole is to any nearby trees or buildings. Sensors in the device will record all the necessary measurements. The technician can also manually record information such as the age and height of the pole from the pole stamp.
It's this level of detail in data collection that can yield great benefits later. And with a system that syncs, the information can be immediately transferred directly from the field to the data management software back at the office.
In the Office
Analysts in the office then use software to organize the data collected from the field to begin building the digital twin. By digitally stitching together all the individual photos and measurements taken in the field, they produce a detailed, three-dimensional, measurable photo representation of the pole. And thus, a digital twin is born.
But the work doesn’t stop there. Once created, the digital twin can be manipulated and modified using additional data, accessed by various departments through a digital twin platform, and shared with contractors and other joint use partners. It also can be joined with comparable data on other poles to create a twin of a whole group or network of assets.
The Impact of Digital Twins at Work
The usefulness of digital twins cannot be overstated. They make accurate information available to everyone involved in the process of attachment requests and approval.
For example: If a company wants to place small cell equipment on several poles within a certain area to densify its network, then a digital twin of the infrastructure in that area can enable the company to examine one pole after another from the office. This helps them to identify those that have the most space remaining for additional attachments. With this type of intelligence, a company can be more strategic with its attachment requests and reduce the likelihood that the asset owner will reject the requests and delay the deployment.
Not only that, but the digital twin’s detailed measurements also help the attaching company ensure its network will be dense enough to meet its needs.
The benefits also extend to the asset owner. From their seat, the digital twin contains enough information for a reliable load analysis on each pole. Assessing the condition of a pole, and the load it’s already carrying, enables asset owners to calculate how much additional weight the pole can bear without compromising its stability. The decision to grant an application for attachment can be made with confidence. As an alternative, the company could conduct the load analysis and add it to the data record before applications for attachment are received, further speeding the approval process.
Digital twins also mean fewer trips to the field for the asset owner, attaching company, and contractors to see what make-ready work will be necessary before a new attachment can be installed on the pole, which translates into greater efficiency.
Lastly, digital twins give companies a chance to simulate any number of changes to predict the effects on individual assets and the overall plant. Let’s take a closer look at how these capabilities extend to specific applications.