The geospatial industry makes digital twins its own domain

In a newly released industry association’s policy report, experts from leading firms share their view on digital twins and what it means for the geospatial industry. Despite appropriating the cross-industry technique of digital twins by giving it another synonym, a landscape of collaboration is slowly emerging as the spatial industry asserts is prominence as data integrators.

The World Geospatial Industry Council (WGIC) has released its policy report “Spatial Digital Twins: Global Status, Opportunities, and the Way Forward” on 5 April 2022. The council serves as a high-level industry forum and represents companies across the geospatial ecosystem. The report was prepared by Integris Group Services, and draws on input from 61 subject matter experts predominantly in Western Europe, North America and Asia.

Digital twin use-cases according to the WGIC report’s research and surveys.

The report evaluates the current state of the digital twin market, considers the value derived from adding geospatial data to digital twins, and showcases WGIC member offerings on digital twins from AAM, Autodesk, Bentley Systems, Fugro, Hexagon, Riegl, Terra Analytics, Trimble, and Voxelmaps.

A spatial digital twin in this case is defined as a digital twin (i.e. dynamic virtual representation of a real-world asset, process or systems) with dimensionally accurate and spatially positioned elements. The report’s authors consider spatial data as a key contributor to the adoption, value and scalability of digital twins since it enables the integration and aggregation of multiple digital twin items or assets. Implicitly they see the spatial digital twin as an evolution of building information modelling (BIM) and digital engineering.

Spatial digital twin report findings and a future vision

The report’s authors found that:

  • Advanced digital twin use-cases rely on spatial data
  • Geospatial data is fundamental to unlocking more applications from existing or individual digital twin ecosystems
  • Spatial data capture services by the geospatial industry enables improved visualisation with low-cost alternatives

Spatial digital twin implementations are divided according to three scales: site specific (micro); hybrid/regional (multisite) and macro (state, country, global). The majority of use cases in the report are at the micro and hybrid scales.

The report goes on to outline a future vision in which every digital twin across the globe is updated in real-time, with information flows from sensors/inputs underpinned by spatial data; with benefits gained by aggregating digital twins based on their position, size and level of detail.

To realise this vision, the report’s authors identify prerequisites including standards, technological interoperability, use cases, the capabilities and capacity to develop digital twins at various scales; and cross industry as well as end-client demand. These prerequisites are also listed as spatial digital twin adoption challenges.

In line with its 2021 report on PPP models for geospatial collaborations, the WGIC sees public-private partnerships playing an important role in enabling spatial digital twins.

Tech and capability stack of spatial digital twins according to the WGIC report.

In presenting the report, Thomas Werner from Integris Group Services said that most companies prioritise technology over sustained interoperability, with interoperability usually limited to standardisation. The direct opposite approach is needed to enable collaboration, he said, before adding that it is still common practice to seek methods to import/export data rather than to integrate systems.

Since 60% of the work developing spatial digital twins involve the collection, cleansing, translating and converting of spatial data into usable formats, another useful recommendation is that the geospatial industry “establish frameworks to support collection and cleansing of asset data based on spatial attributes”.

Spatial data as an ingredient, not the recipe

The report takes spatial data as a digital twin ingredient (albeit a vital one) and appropriates it as a solution for the geospatial industry to capitalise on the digital twin trend. In the process it introduces yet another synonym for advanced digital twins, indistinct from applications such as smart cities and others.

Against its own advice, the report remains fixated on the visualisation capabilities and benefits of geospatial data rather than illustrating new possible insights. The cost of implementing digital twins, and new pricing models, are not meaningfully addressed either. Neither is the disruptive effect on the geospatial industry’s offering by the very sensors enabling spatial digital twins.

Digital twin use-cases by sector. (WGIC engagement survey and interview feedback)

The report limits itself by only presenting the perspectives of SMEs who develop, maintain, provide training or services for digital twins, and do not explore end-user demand. It is also geographically skewed to the global north (arguably since it is more market ready).

Cross-industry collaboration as the next step in data integration

Digital twins by any definition rely on strong collaboration, something that was well illustrated in the broad participation from a variety of stakeholders in the report’s launch event, including from industry and standards bodies such as the WGIC, buildingSMART, ISO and the OGC.

If anything, the WGIC’s Spatial Digital Twins report highlights the geospatial industry’s key role in creating, maintaining and managing high-quality digital twins; that the geospatial industry has been working on data integration and modelling far longer than the term digital twin has been around; and that this industry will continue to play a key role in data integration, modelling and analyses in digital twins or by any other name.

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