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Water utility engineers and operators are a lot like airline pilots—they are both critical decision-makers. There are a million decisions that go into maintaining utility operations during unexpected global events, such as COVID-19, ensuring plant performance during a flood, or helping to determine the best investments for infrastructure upgrades. Having access to the best tools—like pilots use flight simulators and autopilot technology—can make the difference for an engineer and operator making an efficient and confident decision or minimizing operational disruption during unpredictable situations. As utilities look to do more with less, the Digital Twin will transform the water industry much like autopilot technology transformed aviation.

Simply put, Digital Twin is your water system or asset replicated in an interactive virtual environment. That means in near real time, the Digital Twin leverages current and historic data to enhance situational awareness, validate actions, and even prescribe responses to specific events or data parameters. Near-term benefits of Digital Twin include optimized operations; the ability to more accurately predict and prepare for seasonal or climate-driven changes in conditions; cataloging and analyzing asset and operations health to optimize investment; and simulating what-if scenarios for training in a safe environment without risk to personnel or infrastructure. The long-term benefits include advancing and enhancing water reuse, wastewater, and drinking water systems through improved planning, continuity of service, cost savings, and asset management strategy.

Much like turning on a smart car’s “safe driver mode,” or an airplane’s “autopilot,” Digital Twin uses analytical and predictive modeling to speed up and validate decision-making to help automate traditionally time-consuming and manual engineering or operator process.

This safely secures operators in their roles as the driver, or pilot, with Digital Twin as a reliable and trustworthy co-pilot. A properly implemented Digital Twin frees a water system’s critical decision-makers from routine diagnostics so they can see a better, bigger picture to keep critical infrastructure performing today and into the future without incident.

Taking flight

To envision the collaborative and game-changing relationship between Digital Twin and engineers and operators, look to the friendly skies of the aviation industry and the development of the autopilot. The autopilot was invented in 1912, allowing aircraft to fly straight and level without human intervention, lightening the pilot’s workload. Almost immediately, the device piqued military interest for safety, and demand soared, spurring more innovation. Autopilot technology was further developed to safely automate more flight functions, and, in 1932, the autopilot was used in the first solo flight around the world. By the 1970s, modern-day commercial flight autopilots and simulators were born. In the span of six decades, autopilots had evolved from connected gyroscopes on biplanes to interconnected, intelligent computer systems on jets.

Fast-forward to present day, and autopilots run up to 90% of routine flight functions safely with human pilots at the controls. To underscore automation as a safety tactic, a 2018 Federal Aviation Administration report aimed to lower the fatal accident rate by 10 percent over 10 years with automation, so pilot workload and fatigue are reduced while situational awareness to help reduce errors is increased.

Guidance System

For successful industry adoption, Digital Twin needs a standardized architecture—a universal framework encompassing the individual technology components. To help prepare the water sector quickly and set a common reference architecture to implement, Brown and Caldwell has been working with the Smart Water Alliance Network (SWAN), the leading global hub for the smart water sector, to develop the water industry’s first Digital Twin architecture standard: “SWAN’s State of the Art Digital Twin Architecture to Advance the Water Industry.”

“This architecture will set the industry standard for planning and implementing Digital Twin to replicate physical systems and infrastructure. It was an honor for BC to be part of the leadership and development of this fundamental tool for our future.”
Brown and Caldwell’s National Smart Utility Technology Leader Michael Karl

The industry standard architecture will be unveiled at SWAN’s free upcoming 10th Alliance Webinar, “Understanding Real-life, Digital Twins and Their Architecture,” on July 7 at 1 p.m. (EST). Michael, along with BC computer modeling and field-testing expert, Jacob Young, will be among the industry’s leaders presenting the launch of SWAN’s Digital Twin architecture standard.

 

While Digital Twin is relatively new in the water industry, wider adoption is predicted over the next five years. That’s not far away. No journey to Digital Twin implementation is the same, and each component identified in the standardized architecture can be implemented in a way to provide immediate benefit as the utility works toward the goal of Digital Twin powered with artificial intelligence.

Water systems take off

The true value lies in the Digital Twin’s ability to automate the exploration of alternative operations and capital improvement scenarios with historic and current data to reveal more optimal improvements than could ever be developed manually, effortlessly generating data and recommendations to questions such as:

  1. How can I optimize my process to reduce energy and chemical consumption while increasing water quality?
  2. How can I effectively operate my collection system to reduce overflows during wet weather events?
  3. A possible event could impact my influent quality. Can I adjust chemicals and treatment needs at the plant at the same time to meet my needs?
  4. Is there a more efficient way to expedite training of utility staff using a Digital Twin while working remotely?
  5. Can I optimize the capacity or life of my existing plant instead of building a new one?

There are several components of the architecture (see figure above) to consider as utilities begin embracing and leveraging the power of this technology.

  • Sensing control and data collection and sources are the underlying elements that utilities have been implementing and improving over time and serve as the essential components for implementing Digital Twin.
  • Data integration and management lays the foundational technology to integrate data and apply context while making it available to the Digital Twin and utility personnel.
  • Analytics leverage data and physics-based models to crunch data and run scenarios.
  • Visualization provides the ability to ideate the physical scenarios and monitor the current system.
  • User experience makes Digital Twin intuitive, reliable, and trustworthy to utilities. Understanding how a utility plans to use Digital Twin is the most critical part and must be considered when building and implementing the technology.

The result is that engineers and operators work with Digital Twin in a feedback loop, to learn, perform, predict, and act. In any scenario, a trusted, collaborative, and continuous partnership helps utilities soar today and tomorrow.

“The digital replication of the physical world, constructed or in design, allows you to test, simulate, and evaluate scenarios to optimize the design or operations of a facility,” Michael said. “Digital Twin varies in capabilities from replicas of the physical twin in a map or model with some operational data to a real-time physics based model like distribution all the way to a collection/treatment system model that includes weather, hydraulics, and biological treatment models.”

Building a brighter future together

Whether or not you’re an early adopter, the building blocks are the same for every water system: Lay the foundation for Digital Twin with your digital infrastructure today.

To begin, start integrating and managing data with smart utility tools and frameworks. For example, a water system can first look to optimize the data coming from SCADA or measuring devices, or even work orders and customers’ information. Like the evolution of the relationship between drivers and smart cars, or airplane pilots and autopilots, small steps to the lay the groundwork for Digital Twin now can empower engineers and operators with a safer, efficient, and more reliable water system in the future.

As Michael said: “Water system personnel are critical. They touch and affect the lives of all our communities across the country. Digital Twin will make a better partner for utilities by taking all of the data and possible scenarios into the twin from which engineers and operators can make confident decisions.”

About the experts

Michael Karl is Brown and Caldwell’s National National Smart Utility Technology Leader and a senior project manager who leverages digital technology in a sustainable way to better serve the unique challenges of the water industry. He has been providing automation and digital services to the water industry for the last 20 years.

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