November 25, 2020

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HKIA develops digital twin

Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) is working to become a smart airport by applying innovation and technology to create an enjoyable and hassle-free experience for passengers, as well as enhance operational efficiency. A part of this vision is the creation of a digital twin of HKIA.

The digital twin is a virtual 3D model in which data from different sources can be integrated, made available instantly, visualized in a human-centric interface and analysed to make predictions in an explainable way.

Digital twins are also constructed for new construction projects to provide a lifelike look of the design and amenities to facilitate better planning and design adjustments.

The creation of HKIA’s digital twin first started with the BIMs of HKIA linked with various operation data from the airport’s asset management system, which is integrated with a geographical information systems (GIS) map to create the static state of the digital twin.

A unity engine – a development platform designed to integrate and create 3D models also used in video games and architecture – is then deployed to navigate the 3D model of the airport in a photo-realistic manner.

To make the digital twin come alive, the model is fed with real-time data from IoT devices deployed throughout the airport. This is coupled with simulation tools, corporate applications and an enterprise analytics platform. This way, HKIA can literally predict what the airport will experience in the future.

The virtual model has been completed for the areas of Terminal 1 that are accessible by passengers, while remaining areas of the airport will be added to the replica in stages.

The digital twin’s lifelike visualization helps the airport authority streamline the design review for new construction projects, especially for off-site construction methods that require more precise planning.

Moreover, using predictive analytics, the digital twin can provide maintenance alerts that are useful in effective resources deployment, resulting in cost savings and improved services.

The supplier perspective

HKIA and a Vietnamese company worked closely together on the development of the airport’s digital strategy for deploying a digital twin at the main terminal.

The company’s goal is for digital twin technology to start making recommendations based on what the data shows will happen. The airport can then set its own rules about how those recommendations are actioned. Some will be handled automatically, while other decisions will always need human input, particularly during times of heavy disruption.

Ultimately recommendations made by digital twin technology will help inform that decision-making. The technology will learn which recommendations are typically accepted and suggest a new rule to make the process even more efficient.

A fully functioning digital twin of an airport is still some time off. However, as experts work to build it out more widely and deeply, the full extent of its potential is becoming clear.

Advice for those looking to develop digital twins

Airport owners must identify the end-user and the intended use of the digital twin. They should also know what problem they are attempting to solve. This will lead to what types of maps, models, drawings and engineering data should be collected and how it should be presented.

The key is to engage all key stakeholders within the airport to see how they use the data. Establish standards and protocols for model management and updating. Future-proof the data in the model and do not rely on proprietary software; the airport will be around long after the software.

Upskill staff in the use of manipulation of the data and models. This will need a step-change in terms of people, process and technology. If unsure, seek professional help to map out a strategic roadmap for the digital transformation of the airport prior to deploying a digital twin.

There is significant potential in digital twin technology and it is certainly something all airports should be looking at. However, a digital twin of an airport can only be truly effective if every available piece of data is used, making it important to ensure there is buy-in from all stakeholders involved in running the airport.